Hollywood loves a “reveal.” That’s a moment where a bit of information that has been withheld from the audience is suddenly revealed onscreen. You’ve seen it a hundred times in the movies, often handled poorly. In the latest movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the director opens with a tedious sword fight between Captain Jack Sparrow and an anonymous opponent. I recall after five seconds thinking, “Are they going to make us wait sixty seconds to reveal that he is fighting a woman.” Why “sixty seconds”? I’m not sure, but most directors think that dragging out information for sixty seconds is pretty cool. But no, in this case they dragged it out for something that seemed closer to three minutes. I really had to fight the impulse to get up and walk out of the theater.
Yet the truth is that Hollywood loves a reveal because we as an audience love a reveal. We crave those juicy little surprises that pop up in a good story. In fact, as a writer, I crave them so much that I often like to write by the seat of my pants often just so that I can have those nice little surprises jump out at me as I’m writing. You know what I mean—those moments when you discover that the protagonist's best friend is really the killer that they’ve both been hunting throughout the book. Sometimes the idea will strike you, and you’ll look back at your story, and see that it seems you’ve been setting up that surprise all along.
Yet, for me, it’s often difficult to consciously try to set up those surprises. I think that perhaps it is because I don’t look for the opportunities often enough.
I’ve heard these little surprises called by a number of names—“reveals” in Hollywood—“revelations,” “twists” or “surprises” in writing classes.
A good writer will season his work with surprises, peppering them in.
So I got to thinking, perhaps there is an organized way to think about them.
Here we go:
You may remember tales where there are surprises in the settings. For example, Rowling liked to add surprises to her settings by adding oddities to them—having staircases that moved you from one opening to another, having dining rooms that redecorated themselves for parties, having paintings that move. That’s one way to surprise us, by creating an odd or unique setting, but there are others.
In mainstream writing, we often look for what we call that “surprising detail” that makes a setting come to life. If you were writing a scene set in a butcher shop in the 1960s, you might do a little research about the setting and say, “Ah, this is what a butcher shop looked like.” You might mention the huge wooden butcher’s block that the butcher would throw slabs of meat on. But you probably wouldn’t get the realistic details of someone who worked there. For example, you might not think to open the scene with the butcher cleaning the block, scraping the fat and blood off with a “block scraper,” and then washing it down with hot water and chlorine. Why? Because most people never got to see how often the butcher had to clean the block. It was something done when customers weren’t watching, so that the place always looked and smelled clean. So with every setting, we need to hunt for details that are so right that they surprise the reader.
Another way to add surprise to a setting is to look for historical details. If you’re writing about a real-world setting, an old inn may become intriguing as you mention guests who have stayed there. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imbued everything with a sense of history—from the hedge around the Shire to the languages spoken by elves and dwarves.
An even richer source for surprise than setting is your cast. You can of course use the same techniques for creating surprises in characters as you do for settings. You can for example make a character a bit strange or grotesque. In The Godfather, we are fascinated by Don Corleone because of his strange nature—he’s powerful, seemingly warm-hearted one moment and unbelievably vicious the next.
Just as with settings, you can surprise us with a character’s history. If Mario Puzo had told us that Don Corleone had been a second son, and had therefore followed a centuries-old tradition of studying for the priesthood—until his old brother got rubbed out—would you have been surprised? Probably, but you wouldn’t be too surprised. It’s the kind of detail that would fit nicely.
And, of course, you can surprise us with just the right details. Mario Puzo wrote knowledgeably about the mob—much more so than the average housewife who had never even heard of it in 1969, when the book came out.
But with characterization, there is another way that you can surprise a reader: duality. You can have a character for example who is both brilliant and a thug, or completely honest in his business dealings and not in his feelings. These inner conflicts create a new opportunity for surprise—those moments when the character feels so conflicted that he chooses a course of action that even he wouldn’t have considered. Thus, in every hero journey, we almost always have a struggle where the protagonist doesn’t want to get involved, but finds himself torn as he witnesses some injustice, until at last he is forced to risk his life to defend people that, in all likelihood, he didn’t know at the beginning of the tale. In fact, he may even have considered them to be enemies.
On the level of conflict, we have much the same categories that give us opportunities as above.
We can look for opportunities to create surprise by having grotesque conflicts. In The Life of Pi, we have a man trapped on a small boat out in the ocean with a tiger. In the movie Liar, Liar, we have a protagonist who gets into terrible trouble because he can’t tell a lie.
Yet you’ve seen plenty of tales where the author puts in telling details that convince you that he or she has “been there, done that.” In my novel Nightingale, I write about a boy who was raised in foster care. I received several letters from people who said, “This just hit too close to home. You got it so perfectly, that it brought up horrific memories that I had thought I’d long forgotten.”
Just as with the other categories, conflicts can have fascinating histories. I moved to a small town when I was six; I recall seeing two boys fighting on the playground, punching each other with gusto. I could tell that this was more than your typical “boys wrestling” kind of thing that I was used to. Eventually, I learned that the two families had been feuding for 150 years. In one incident, when I was sixteen, a gunfight broke out between the two sides. One group of men were holed up in a tavern, while a dozen others took shelter in a grocery store across the street, and the two clans shot at each other for an hour until a policeman showed up—at which point they all began firing at him. So when you put characters in conflict, you can give an incident a bit of delicious history, adding a layer of surprise.
With conflicts in particular, you can’t just look at the history of the conflict for surprises, you have to look to the future. If I were writing a novel about our feuding families, there are all sorts of opportunities for surprise. Perhaps a young woman from one family wants to marry a boy from another. It happened once before, back in 1952, when a young couple eloped and disappeared. But this is 2013, and the couple wants the families to resolve their differences. The passion with which they both want this could be powerful. Just as interesting could be Uncle Lucius’s plan to poison the punch at the wedding, so that all of the members of the opposing family die. Then you could twist it, so that Granny Rogers, knowing of the plan, decides to drink the punch anyway, because she is so tired of living in a world with so much senseless strife. Or you could write about the Rogers children who drink the punch despite the warning, simply because it looks so good, and thus bring to life a metaphor on how the elders in this family are poisoning the next generation.
In short, you can study your conflict and add layers to it, so that you add new levels of surprise.
On the level of treatment, there are hundreds of ways to add surprise. For example, I might decide to write this feuding family story in the voice of a very sophisticated, intelligent Supreme Court Judge for the state of Oregon—a member of one of the families. In fact, let’s make him Uncle Lucius. The fact that a seemingly reasonable person might poison the punch would definitely add a layer of surprise. Trying to come up with a reasonable way that such a grotesque character could evolve would be a challenge. Making him believable would be a triumph.
Similarly, in such a story, the use of voice might be a way to add a level of surprise. We could pepper the judge’s speech with quotes from Gandhi, Shakespeare, and the Bible, so that he seemed both wise and well read. We might also add luscious metaphors and profound insights to make him seem to be a man of artistic temperament and stern reasoning. (All of this could serve as a delicious counterpoint to the unthinkable brutality of the tale.)
Of course, there will be thousands of opportunities to create surprise in such a tale by choosing just the right word when describing a situation—the proper bit of slang, or the revealing adverb.
With plot, we add surprise by twisting it in unexpected ways.
For example, as a protagonist takes a course of action, and others either support or oppose that action, it creates all sorts of opportunities for surprise. Literally, with the right motivation for your characters, just about anything can happen.
One major animation studio says that when you’re looking for an opportunity to create surprise in your plot, ask yourself, “What couldn’t possibly happen?” In other words, stretch your imagination. Try thinking outside the box, and you’ll probably come up with some surprising directions for your story.
Another way to tackle this is to purposely misdirect your audience. For example, let’s say that our young bride in the story above learns about her uncle’s plot to poison her fiancé's family. Perhaps she calls the police and reports it, and the audience is led to believe that the authorities will stop the incident. But for some reason, perhaps because the officer involved is indebted to this judge, the report gets destroyed.
In short, you can create surprising twists in your plot, but they will often work better if the audience is also misdirected as to the course of the story, too.
Very often, we can look at our theme to add an element of surprise.
A good theme will seem universal, relatable to the reader, but often the connection isn’t obvious. It becomes the writer’s job to provide the connections for the reader, often in surprising ways.
For example, in the tale about our murdering judge, he might talk about the history of the family feud—how one of those damned “Barron boys” knocked out his teeth on the playground when he was seven and how they would pull the clothes off the wash line when he was young, and so on. The reader might empathize simply because most of us have had some sort of childhood feud. Heck, you might even have had it as an adult. I have to admit that we moved out of one house in large part because we had a neighbor that made us miserable with her constant attacks.
So you surprise the reader in this instance by showing how this conflict is something similar to incidents from their own experience.
At the same time, you can show how the theme relates to the world at large. One of the greatest problems that the world faces is tribalism. It lies at the heart of the problems in Syria, for example, where members of one tribe are struggling to dominate and usurp those who belong to other tribes, to the point where President Assad is willing to use nerve gas to kill the children of his enemies. Tribalism also can be linked to most of the atrocities going on in Africa, and even to the fights between Democrats and Republicans here in the US.
So with our themes, we can surprise readers by showing connections between our story, our audience, and the world at large.
I was recently a guest on the podcast The Creative Penn. You can listen to the episode here.
My friend Kristy Tate had her novel The Highwayman Incident come out:
Celia Quinn's business lies in ruins at the hands of Jason West, the latest in a long line of scoundrels. As she seeks to restore her family's livelihood, Celia stumbles upon lore about the local Witching Well, whose water is said to cause hysteria and psychosis. When a mysterious stranger slips Celia water from the well into her drink, she’s transported to Regency England. Her timeless adventure spans miles and centuries from modern-day New England to Merlin's Cave in Cornwall, England. Only Jason West can save her.
But Celia and Jason must tread carefully, as what happens in the past can reverberate through the ages. Their lives, hearts and futures are caught in time’s slippery hands.