Three Tips for Surprising Your Reader

Over the last few years, between volunteering as a Pitch Wars mentor and judging several different writing contests, I’ve read LOTS of first chapters. Consistently, one of the things that sets apart brilliant writing from solid but lackluster efforts is some element of surprise. Chapters that are well-written but not exceptional are often predictable–I often know what’s going to happen next just from the way things are set-up.

Of course, some degree of familiarity is expected, particularly in genre fiction. Readers return to romance over and over again because they like and expect the happy ending. In fantasy, we often expect good to triumph over evil (though George R. R. Martin and others are doing their best to challenge this). In a Joss Whedon story, we expect someone we love to die. But if everything feels familiar. Readers start to get bored.

So what can you do to upset predictability in your writing? There are lots of different ways, but today I’m going to focus on three.

Take a cliche and twist

As you brainstorm your story, ask yourself what readers expect from that particular genre–and then avoid the expected. For example, my kids and I giggled our way through The Heroes Guide to Saving the Kingdom, where a collection of Prince Charmings (Cinderella’s prince, Snow White’s prince, etc.) form an unlikely team to save the kingdom. We expect Prince Charming to be dashing, handsome, and, well, charming, right? These princes run the gamut from shy and rather cowardly to distinctly grumpy, and that twist on convention made the story sparkle.

Surprise the character

A good story inhabits the world of a character, allowing the reader to experience the world with the character. Something that surprises the character will likely surprise the reader too. For instance, in one of my favorite fairy tales, King Thrushbeard, after a princess rejects a series of suitors for minor reasons (too fat, too tall), her father vows he will marry her to the next beggar who comes to the door–and when a minstrel comes calling, he does just that. Because kings generally marry their daughters off for power and prestige, this follow-through on his threat surprises both the princess and the readers (though in true fairy tale fashion, this is not the final surprise of the story). 

Veronica Sicoe has an excellent post on writing twists that surprise the character.

Brainstorm ten things

I’ve heard best-selling author Jennifer Nielsen say that one of her favorite writing techniques for getting characters out of tight spots is to brainstorm ten different ways that the character might escape. (Anyone who’s read The False Prince knows Nielsen is a master at surprises). Recently, another writer friend said she does the same thing with her stories. She explained that the first three or so answers are almost always cliche or expected responses to a problem, and a few of them might be so weird as to be unusable. But somewhere in the middle she nearly always finds a solution that hits the sweet spot between being surprising and outlandish.

Last week, I hit a snag in my revision–I needed to stage an escape for my character but I worried that the escape I had written was too obvious. So I tried the ten item brainstorm, and was surprised both by how hard it was to come up with ten different ideas for a scene I’d already written, but also how helpful it was. My new plan relies on a combination of different ideas from that brainstorm.

What are your favorite tricks for surprising your readers?

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