The Element of Surprise

Stories need to earn their surprises. There is very little I find more frustrating than a story that throws you a (usually concluding) plot point or major piece of information that comes right out of left field. Left field is bad, folks. But in thinking about the difference between something coming out of left field and a solid surprise, I’m at pains to say exactly what it is. So, I figured, I might as well blog about it and see if someone smarter at this stuff than I am wants to chime in. Follow me through the element of surprise!

As a first matter, when I write about stories, I write mostly as a consumer. I have a theatre degree but not a writing one, and this background shapes how I engage with plots and imagery and dialogue and all of the things that make up the book I’m reading. The best books, though, are the ones that I lose myself in and wash over me, leaving me raw in some fashion while my brain processes the experience for days and weeks afterwards. All of this is to say: take these words with as much salt as you think they deserve.

So surprise! Earning it! All of that. Yeah. I guess I should start with the way the hell outta left field surprise that still makes me frustrated (read: unreasonably angry) years after I saw it. Elisabeth Röhm left her run as ADA Serena Southerlyn on Law & Order asking her boss if she was getting fired because she’s a lesbian. What? Literally, that’s what I yelled at my TV. Then I turned my head to my brother and said it again. What? Here, just watch it for yourself (but my guess is, out of the context of her whole arc, you might not have the same reaction).

Dude, let me tell you how much I want more queer characters (and other un(der)represented minorities) on mainstream t.v. shows. [CJ mentally runs through list of fandoms she’s in and only finds Orphan Black satisfactory.] [CJ remains disappointed.] This coming out, though, was cheap and completely out of left field. She was coming out to the audience but not within the world of the show; the DA seems to already know this about her. Were we supposed to guess her sexuality because she would call out unethical behavior in the Prosecutor’s office? Cause that is a really bad indication of who you take to your bed. Total left field. [Side Note: now that I’m in law school, I have a whole separate rant now about this scene, but I will spare you that one, because I endeavor to be a kind blogger.]

That is one end of the spectrum. A scene at the other end is the reveal moment in A Sixth Sense. Since, I’m doing the video thing this post, here you go:

Completely earned, well-made surprise. My roommate asked me how I can enjoy watching movies and television when I guess just about everything that is going to happen (truefact: guessing is fun for me!). I predict what is going to happen in stories a lot, especially visually told ones. I’m rarely surprised, because I’ve got a good, innate sense of when and how the storyteller is misdirecting the audience. I get this from my grandmama, and she was the best for watching t.v. and movies with because of it. (I try not to guess aloud when I’m watching with other people that don’t enjoy that sort of thing.)

But this movie. Totally and completely surprised. Questioning-the-previous-declarations-of-my-ability-to-see-surprise-coming kind of surprised. But not angry surprised, like with Law & Order. It was earned. It was within the plot and the world. The hints were there if you knew to see them. It wasn’t hidden in a way to gratuitously shove the “real” story in your face at the end.

That’s the other end of the spectrum. The ends of the spectrum are generally easy to distinguish. It’s the middle area that is hard: where one type at some point tips over into the other type and is open for different, legitimate reactions from the reader or the audience. They might also be the surprises that you just sort of meh at. They are probably the ones that I tend to be able to predict.

And now the point! When you are writing your own stories, how do you stay in the surprise category and avoid wandering into left field? From the above examples, keeping your surprises within the world you have created is step one. But what else is there? How can you judge for yourself? You’re in the weeds of your story, so is it better to get your first readers to tell you when you’ve wandered off? What do you do to make sure that your surprise doesn’t earn an eyeroll or years of unanswered anger from your readers?

And what have been your favorite and least favorite “surprises” in film, t.v., books, short stories, etc? What do you think makes a surprise work or not?

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