We all know “gimmicky” when we read it: something feels lazy, forced, or somehow not genuine, because characters aren’t being true to who we believe they are (who they’ve shown themselves to be.)
I’ve written one post about suspense tactics turning gimmicky, but this post is different. In many ways, surprise is the opposite of suspense. And that explains the first reason surprises in fiction can feel gimmicky:
1. THE STORY DOESN’T SET UP FOR THE SHOCKING REVELATION
Suspense is all about building tension, based on knowing only PART of what’s going on. You know a killer is in the house, but you don’t know when he’ll strike. You know the bad guy is up to something, but you can’t say what that is, or how his schemes will materialize.
Thus, when the suspense built by revealing part of the story comes to fruition, surprises may be involved, but they don’t necessarily feel gimmicky because we’ve been prepared and set up for them. After all, the whole story has been promising that what’s causing us suspense will come to a head.
We accept tension of that type because we know it is leading to a resolution. But what does that mean for curveballs coming out of nowhere?
Surprises and shocks in fiction feel forced and let us down when we don’t have any set up for them at all. If you’re writing about the CIA, say, or MI6, and your protagonist (a spy) knows someone in the office is a traitor, you can somehow accept the twist that his new wife has been against him all along (and in fact, only married him in order to steal information.)
If the reader has no inkling at all that a traitor is out there? That information is going astray, or that someone is betraying your protagonist? In this case, our shocking revelation may not work as well. (It would depend on the details and the writing, I’d say). It would certainly have the possibility of feeling gimmicky.
Whenever a shock or surprise comes completely out of the blue–especially in the final third of a novel–for me as a reader, I hate that. It just screams “gimmick” (most of all the time. Like all things, there can be an exception, a well crafted novel or short story that utilizes this technique.)
Keep in mind, too: there are different degrees of shock/surprise, and they vary in likelihood and credibility. Someone who doesn’t take good care of himself having a heartache on a random day, that’s a bit more probable than him discovering his wife is a double agent.
2. MAKE SURE THE TWIST DOESN’T CHANGE WHO YOUR CHARACTERS ARE.
I touched on this in the suspense post as well: I said that we should never sacrifice character cohesiveness and continuity for the sake of crafting suspense.
Neither should we change, in a flash, the entire concept of who one of our characters is for the sake of delivering a twist. That’s cheating our readers. Also, it makes for bad writing and a story that, on a logical level, makes little sense.
Let’s go back to the example above, about the new wife who is betraying her spy husband’s secrets. That can be a shocking revelation, but it makes sense if (as we know) the husband knows someone is stealing documents from his office.
It makes sense that his wife could copy his keys. She would, if she’s smart, make a point of stealing documents from his office after hours (let’s say) rather than from the house. When stuff goes missing from the house, he’d immediately ask her about it. But from the office…. Why would he even think to suspect her?
The “wife-betrayer” character makes even more sense if she has a background that fits…. Maybe she hates the government because her brother, or a previous husband, was killed in a war the government sponsored.
Maybe she’s a second generation immigrant from a rival country. Those are the kinds of things that can be hinted at, revealed in throwaway comments that attribute (supposedly) small importance to them.
My point is this: if you craft the wife as a character who was a girl scout in youth, volunteers to help the community, and has always been patriotic, and you later give no explanation of how she became disillusioned with her country…. the character no longer makes sense. That’s especially true if you know she doesn’t need money from selling secrets.
Sure, you surprise your reader by making this character the “bad gal,” but the surprise is cheap. Readers have no tangible, logical motive for the wife to be doing what the author says she’s been doing. Even if you can say her patriotism, her good-citizen routine was an act the whole time…. WHY? Why go to the trouble of selling secrets, especially when it involves the time and trouble of living as this alter-ego?
Don’t get me wrong: surprises are good. And there can always be exceptions that prove the rule…. Genius writers can pull things off that writers like me just can’t and never will.
That said, when you are hoping to shock and surprise your readers with a surprising revelation:
- Consider setting the reader up for the revelation so that, while it’s surprising, it feels “right” at the same time. The best surprises are the kinds that, after the fact, leave you thinking, “That’s so obvious! How did I not see it coming?”
- Make sure you’re not sacrificing character for the sake of a cheap thrill.
- You can give some extra explanation after the fact, to make it less likely readers will figure you out, but ALWAYS explain how the shocking revelation came about, in a way that fits into the world you’ve created and feels believable.
The big trick…. and this is so, so hard…. is walking that fine line between setting readers up for a surprise revelation and revealing too much ahead of time. I couldn’t find the balance in my first novel, which is one of many reasons it remains unpublished.
And don’t forget, beta readers and editors are great resources to help you walk that line!
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