The Perfect Story: Surprise

Lately I’ve been talking a bit about some of the attributes that one will find in a perfect story.  One of those has to be what I will call “surprise.”  Now, in particular I look for surprise as we reach the climax of a tale.  A good climax will almost always have some twist that defies the reader’s expectation.  You know how it goes: in an adventure film, the twist might occur as the hero of the tale seems utterly defeated, but then manages to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.  In a mystery it might be that all of the clues seem to point toward Helen’s boyfriend as the killer, but through some sudden insight she recognizes that it is really a police officer who has set him up—and she does it just in time to whap the cop with her stun gun.

Now, often that moment in a tale is called the “reversal” in the story, yet I find that the best stories usually have surprises laid gently throughout the entire tale.  These might simply be surprising twists of phrase that we find poignant or delightful.  They might be descriptions that aren’t just apt, but they rise to the level of genius.  The surprise might lie in dialog that seems astonishingly lifelike.

Just as a story may either broaden or deepen, a perfect story will also broaden and deepen the reader’s life experience.  Let me explain that just a bit: each of us live on the same planet.  Most of the people reading this list probably live in the United States, and so we live in the same country for the most part.  Yet even then, our life experiences are vastly different.  To illustrate this, a few years ago I sent a group of writing students out to the park for an hour and asked each of them to outline a story based upon their observations in the park.  No two stories were even close to being similar.  One man that had walked beside me outlined a story about a frog that he spotted in the park.  Now, I never saw that frog.  But he had wandered from my side for all of sixty seconds, and in that time he met with two other writers who were watching a large fat toad, and so that frog became the seed of a story.  Another woman felt that a child’s kite looked much like a menacing spaceship.  A third woman wrote about a gentle man who lurked in the park searching for children to molest.  Another felt that the park was sterile and frozen and deadly, while a man beside her found that a corner of it made him think of a jungle.

So even the people who are closest to us often perceive the world differently, and often through their perceptions, they recognize things that we might miss.  Thus, a fine writer who observes the world closely will often surprise us by making particularly apt observations about everyday affairs.  In that way, the writer helps share his or her wisdom.

Similarly, a good story often takes us beyond our experiences, expanding our horizons.  We seek out contacts with such people every day.  Imagine that you have learned that you have the early stages of cancer.  You go to a Christmas party, and the topic of conversation turns to illness.  Wouldn’t you find it valuable to listen to the advice of others who have gone through surgeries or chemotherapy for your kind of cancer?  You’d hang onto their every word.  Often in life, we find ourselves seeking wisdom from those who have experienced things that we have not.

Thus, as an author you need to look for ways to surprise your reader, not just through twisting the tale in new directions in order to defeat the reader’s expectations, but by crafting your tale with superb precision, in making profound observations on everyday affairs, and in broadening your reader’s experience with the world at large.


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