Surprise, surprise

Joe’s Post #84

One of the hardest things to do as a writer of suspense fiction, is…

Wait for it…

movies-20-shocking-twists-gallery-2A surprise.

Or, more specifically, that lovely plot twist that’s essential to a good mystery/thriller. Like the ending of “The Usual Suspects”.

Why is it so hard?

Cuz it’s hard to surprise yourself. Not impossible, though, I mean I surprise myself all the time. I managed to remember where my keys were once. That was a shocker. I didn’t scream like a girl while zip lining (despite any stories Corinne may tell). That’s a huge surprise. And one time, kinda drunk, I even danced on a table which, I’m pretty sure, surprised everyone.

But writing a story surprise is way harder than all of that. It’s because you know exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t often come as a shock that the one armed man did it because when you thought of the idea, you thought, hey, that one armed guy did it and now I have to hide it so my audience is surprised.

But how do you know?

How do you know if that plot twist has worked?

eric robertsCSI-like shows rarely surprise me anymore. It’s always someone we’ve met (an essential element to any surprise), it’s usually some semi-famous actor (or Eric Roberts – if he’s in it, he did it). And even if they always do their best to hide whodunit, it’s pretty formulaic.

So, now I tend to watch those shows to see how they do it.

So how?

1. By red herrings, for one. That’s where you make the audience think it’s Eric Roberts’ twin where it really was, well, his twin. The other twin. It’s a false clue, a person with a motive to kill the victim or a misinterpretation of evidence.

2. The red herring must distract the main character. Not like, oh look, it’s a topless girl, no, something like ALL the clues point to the boyfriend when it was actually the cat or something.

3. The big twist has to be set up in the beginning and, if necessary, reinforced throughout the story. Remember The Sixth Sense. The surprise at the end was epic, but it was carefully crafted from the very beginning (the hero just misinterpreted all that he was seeing).

4. The audience can know what’s going on, who the bad guy might be, but it’s essential that if the hero doesn’t know, it’s for a very good reason. The detective should never be stupid.

Year-7-Plot-Twist-Story_35. It’s important to make something unexpected happen. The picture to the left is a good example of this.

Oh, there are a lot more things to consider, but what I want to get across is how hard it is for the author to know if cool plot twist will be a surprise, or will it be seen a mile away?  Will it come out of nowhere and people say, that was stupid, I’m gonna kill your dog for that?

So that’s what I worked on this week. I tried to add surprises to my story. A lot of what-ifs followed by how do I introduce that, combined with “is that even plausible?” with a lot of “where the hell do I even put that plot twist?”

In the end, the only way I’ll know for sure is when the reader has at it.

Any suggestions?


Number of Birthdays I Had: 1

Number of Blogs Written: 2

Number of pages written on new novel: 0

Number of Queries Sent Out: 0

Number of Outline Pages Rumpled Up and Thrown on the Floor: 23

Number of Sting/Paul Simon Concerts Seen: 1 (an amazing birthday gift from the prettiest girl on the planet.)

5 thoughts on “Surprise, surprise

  1. I’ve found that I’ve written a few short stories recently that have ‘surprise’ endings – nothing quite at the level of sixth sense or usual suspects. And funnily enough, they’ve usually been a surprise to me too – the story has ended in a slightly different direction to the way in which I thought it would end.

  2. Imagine my lack of surprise that you’ve written another killer blog post! You’re so right about the delicacy of the surprise element. I have absolutely no advice to give here. I’m just as at sea about it as you are. More so. I’m considering just swimming after the red herrings and seeing which one leads to the dead body. Probably Eric Roberts again.

  3. So tricky to get the surprise element right, while being fair to our readers. Up to now in my own writing, I never knew at the time I started a new novel what that surprise would be in the end. I let it evolve and surprise me. That’s why I find outlining my entire novel from start to finish such a burden. I want to be surprised as much as my readers.

  4. Surprises are so hard to do well. Too far one way, and they’re no surprise at all. Too far another, and readers think, “that was forced.” It’s also easy to fall into a trap of not providing sufficient clues for anyone to see it coming. I’m still working my way up to “competent” on this skill!

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