Readers love to be surprised, but they’re not fans of being tricked or manipulated. Author John McNally shares his five tips for surprising your readers without it feeling like a trick.
I began writing my new book The Fear of Everything: Stories when I was given an assignment to write a short story for a Ray Bradbury tribute anthology, and when I revisited Bradbury’s work for the first time since childhood, I discovered stories full of not just wonder but genuinely moving surprises. Re-reading Bradbury pushed me toward writing stories that took greater risks with more emotionally impactful surprises for the reader.
But surprises aren’t easy.
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In his essay “On Writing,” Raymond Carver writes, “I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say ‘No cheap tricks’ to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it to ‘No tricks.’ Period. I hate tricks.”
Similarly, crime writer Charles Willeford gave students in his “Classic Detective Novel” course a handout that began, “The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. The author must be fair with the reader, because games should be fair. The author may outwit the reader, but he should not cheat by trickiness or deceptions.”
And so in the spirit of “no tricks or no deceptions,” I offer five ways to surprise your reader.
Discover how the seven core competencies of storytelling—concept, character, voice, plot, theme, scene construction, and style—combine to create compelling narrative in The Art of Storytelling 101.
Welcome Readers With Humor
Humor is a tool that I use in most of my work, the effect of which is that the reader puts down their defenses. Humor is my invitation into the story, much like the freshly-baked apple pie that a Realtor tells you to set out for your open house. But humor can be subterfuge for the darker moments in the story, and once the reader has put down their defenses, the impact for the surprising moment becomes greater.
Think of it this way: A story that’s dark from the get-go is foreshadowing that something darker is to come. A story that welcomes you in with humor doesn’t tip its hand to the reader, and so any changes to tone catch the reader unguarded. The switch in tone must feel organic to the reader—both tones must be part of the same fabric—but when done effectively, the surprise can really pack a punch.
Use Exposition to Reveal Information
Exposition is information. Fiction is full of information. A character grew up in Cincinnati; she has green eyes; she has three brothers; she was adopted. How and when you choose to reveal information is crucial to surprise, but you run the risk of being manipulative or, worse, predictable.
How many undergraduate stories have I read where the last line reveals that the narrator is dead? That’s not a surprise; that’s a trick. And remember: No tricks. But if you dole the information out judiciously, the effect can be powerful.
For instance: In chapter one, we learn that a young man steals a loaf of bread and then sits on a street corner and eats it. How do we feel? Well, that depends on you. Exposition forces the reader to situate themselves morally within a story. If we have sympathy for someone whom we believe is homeless, we may feel sympathetic.
But if in chapter two we learn that the young man has a trust fund, our feelings may shift toward anger. The surprise, therefore, comes in how our own feelings shift for this young man, and it’s all because of one piece of exposition being added to the puzzle of who he is.
Shift Point of View
I typically don’t recommend shifting point of view in short stories for the purpose of plot because you’re likely to do so at the expense of character development, and shifts are more likely to come across as manipulative. Short stories are, after all, short. The more compressed something is, the more you sacrifice. But in a novel? Have at it!
You have hundreds and hundreds of pages to play with in a novel, so you have more than enough room to experiment with shifting perspectives. What one character knows, another character doesn’t. But the surprise comes in the arrangement of the chapters.
Here are two useful definitions: Story is “what happens” whereas plot is “the arrangement of what happens,” and any surprise that you achieve is in that arrangement. If the movie Jaws was told in reverse chronological order, there wouldn’t be any element of surprise, and yet a movie like Pulp Fiction generates surprises because the story is told out of chronological order and shifts perspectives.
Move From Micro to Macro
Whenever someone ends up on TV for having done something spectacular or surprising, a reporter will often find a neighbor or distant family member or teacher who will cite some small detail—a hobby or a behavior—in the subject’s life that hinted toward what was to come: “He was always a collector—you know, stamps and beer cans,” says the old classmate about the man who now owns six islands.
In fiction, if you establish something early on at the micro level (stamp collecting), it becomes more credible to the reader later when we see the larger, more surprising thing (a man who collects islands). This tip has less to do with creating surprise and more to do with how to avoid making any surprise feel like a trick. What you’re doing is planting the seed in the reader’s head so that the more shocking detail is more palatable.
Even if the reader doesn’t remember the micro detail, they’ve filed it away in their unconscious mind, just as we store thousands of details about the people we know, allowing us to say things like, “It doesn’t surprise me that Jimmy just moved across the globe without telling anyone. He used to do the same thing when we’d go out to bars in college—excuse himself and then never come back.”
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” a Bible salesman steals a young woman’s wooden leg. Discussing this story in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” O’Connor admitted that she didn’t know that he was going to steal the leg until 10 or 12 lines before he did: “This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is because it produces a shock for the writer.”
The most surprising moments in my own fiction are those that I didn’t plan. The challenge is to surprise the reader in such a way that the surprise feels organic to the reader and not manipulated. I tend to think of the writer’s role as a method actor in that we submerge ourselves deeply inside the narrator’s consciousness. And if we do that successfully, you create a character that has options, just as a real person has options.
When a character is faced with a choice between those options, the reader may find herself saying “Oh no, don’t do that” or “The author isn’t really going to go there, is she?” And yes, sometimes a Bible salesman will steal a woman’s wooden leg.