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Include Surprises in Your Stories

April 16, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 16, 2012

This article is a reminder for writers, a reminder to include surprises in your stories.

You’ve been toiling along, writing according to your outline, or you’ve been pantsing without an outline and the words have just come tripping off your fingertips. You’re following the plan and it’s been good. Solid. Dependable.

No, not boring. Not predictable. Just . . .

Hmm. So maybe the plot is predictable. Maybe this passage . . . this scene . . . yeah, maybe this chapter and the last three have been rather steady. And flat. And steady. Did I already say that? It’s not that the action all sounds the same or the dialogue is a rehash of something from five chapters back. It’s just that . . .

Yeah, it’s boring.

So what are you doing wrong?

Maybe not a lot. And maybe you’re just too close to the work to see it clearly. But just maybe it is boring, boring because you’ve forgotten to include something—a revelation, the introduction of a new character, an unforeseen event—that was so unpredictable that you haven’t even surprised yourself for the last hundred pages.

Maybe your characters take only right turns and always peek around corners before they venture around them and so they’re never surprised by what they encounter.

Maybe the predictability of the characters and plot would lull even the most devoted reader.

Have you forgotten to surprise characters and readers? Have you been so slavishly committed to what you think the story should do (not to mention paying attention to all the rules and the mechanics of writing) that you’ve put a stranglehold on your characters so that even if they want to step out boldly, you won’t let them?

Let me suggest that you allow room for story surprises, both for characters and readers. Don’t let either group remain unsurprised as they travel your story world.

Introduce the unexpected and do so more than once. And make each surprise different from the others—

use different characters to spring the surprise

make use of different story elements

use twists but make them fresh twists

change the emotional level of the surprise

stir up a different emotion with each surprise

Use surprises to send the story in a new direction, maybe a darker direction. Use something new to shake up your protagonist or to stir up your antagonist.

Imagine a figurative hornets nest falling on your protagonist and his buddies. What happens? Might they scatter, chased away by the stings or simply the fear of stings? Might this leave your protagonist isolated? Maybe lonely? Maybe wondering why he’s been deserted?

Maybe your lead character is chased so far by the crazed hornets that he no longer recognizes where he is and has no idea how to return to where he’d been. Who can he rely on now? Where can he seek wisdom? Who can he trust for comfort?

This is your chance to add new characters or a new setting, maybe something dark, something totally foreign to your lead character.

Or, maybe it’s the antagonist who’s surprised by the hornets, and he’s made so miserable that he lashes out and steps up his attacks on the protagonist.

We’re not talking true buzzing hornets here. We are talking something surprising that shocks or challenges your characters. Something that wakes up your readers.

And this surprise, whatever form it takes, needs to be written in by you. Planned for by you.

So as you’re writing or rewriting, check for surprises. If your plot is predictable, you could use a surprise. Your characters and readers could certainly use one.

Note: Don’t confuse well plotted or tight-fitting with boring. I’m not talking about messing up the rhythms and balance of a strong story that fits snugly together with inevitable reactions following inevitable actions. I’m talking about changing the predictable, not the inevitable.

Inevitable is satisfying. Predictable is boring. Inevitable is strong story with balanced elements. Predictable is the same old story maybe set in a new city to give it the veneer of freshness.

If you’re bored or if your beta readers are bored or if your characters cross their arms and raise an eyebrow at you in your dreams, demanding something fresh, then add something surprising. Even if you’re not bored, check to see if you’ve included surprises for both characters and readers. If you haven’t, consider an addition.

Introduce a new character

Reveal a secret

Kill a character

Close up an escape route

Force a showdown

Embarrass a key character

Make your protagonist fail

Give a moral character a major moral lapse

Turn an enemy into an ally

Turn an ally into an enemy

Have a character tell a lie; have another character corroborate it

Raise someone or something (a long-abandoned dream) from the dead 

Ratchet up the emotion factor tenfold for a scene


Remember to set up surprises before they’re needed—they need to make sense in terms of the plot and characters you’ve already got working.

Surprise not only readers and characters, but surprise yourself. Write something you didn’t think you had in you. Expose yourself and your emotions and your fears. Step out—leap out—of your comfort zone. Add power to scenes and action and dialogue by moving beyond what you thought you could say or write or declare.

Purposely surprise characters and readers so your stories will be those remembered and talked about. Give readers a reason to anticipate your next book. If they couldn’t guess what would happen in the last one, they’ll never guess what you’ve got in store for them in the next one.

At least that’s what you want them thinking and anticipating.

Take the time now—or make a note to do it later—to search for surprises in action or word choice or plot events or story threads. If you find no surprises, add a few. If you do have a couple, make sure they’re powerful and effective. Make sure you’ve given each a sufficient setup. Make sure they’re not simply one more story element—make them a successful story element.

Eliminate boring and non-engaging passages.

Add surprises to keep both characters and readers involved.

Write the unexpected, the good stuff. Write unpredictable fiction.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

5 Responses to “Include Surprises in Your Stories”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    Surprises. One way for an author who had spend months or years on one project, and they’re getting tired of writing the same old thing and tweak the plot just to shake it up.

    I can relate to that. For example, I threw in a kiss somewhere in the plot. Although it had put my book into a more awkward position (considering who is involved!), I think it adds a bit of mystery.

    It’s that important in context.

  2. Sometimes shaking up the plot is all it takes to send the story in a new direction, one that’s the answer to what ails a manuscript. And we love putting our characters in awkward positions, Chihuahua0. Don’t we? It’s one way to raise that conflict level. Good points.