Shocks and Surprises in Fiction: All in Good Fun, or a Gimmick?

question-mark-3-1084632-mToday’s post is about twists, turns, and surprises in fiction, and what can make them feel “gimmicky” as opposed to delighting readers in the way we authors expect and hope.

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!

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to follow Victoria’s blog by email at the top right of the page. You might also enjoy these related posts on plot.

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22 responses to “Shocks and Surprises in Fiction: All in Good Fun, or a Gimmick?

  1. You bring up some really good points here. It can be quite tricky to feed clues to build suspense without blowing it or giving too much away. Great post, Victoria. 🙂

  2. For me the big question is does the twist serve the plot or is it something added on?

    In the example you give, Spy Thrillers usually deal with themes of deception and paranoia, and the twist of being betrayed by his wife could serve as the natural outgrowth of that theme. In the end the protagonist finds that there is NO ONE he can trust, not even members of his own family. The twist serves the theme.

  3. The first one makes me think of some crime shows where part of the fun is seeing if you can figure out the criminal before the ending. I’ve seen many where you follow the good guys along to every red herring and other crime that was uncovered in the process of working on the main one. Then the finale has one of two situations:

    1) A character you never saw before. I.E.- Jimmy the paperboy killed Mrs. Sanderson the coke-dealing prostitute because she backed over his cat?

    2) An earlier character who was either the victim or a witness, but they pull out a ton of ‘uncovered’ information during the climactic scene. You never saw the good guys get this information and it tends to negate everything else they found. I.E.- We went through 50 minutes of DNA testing, GSR gibberish, and extravagant tests to wow the viewers only to print out the store owners bank statements during a commercial break. He’s in debt and burned his store down for the insurance money, but forgot that his wife was doing inventory.

  4. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

  5. A shocking surprise without setup is nearly as bad as a Deus Ex Machina coming out of nowhere and saving the day (or the protagonist, or the world or whatever). The only exception to this rule – for me – is sudden death of a character. Because it happens, period, and sometimes there’s no preparation for it. But only if it’s as shocking for the protagonist as it’s for the reader, and if there’s a process afterwards how he/she/they come to terms with that death that fits and enriches the plot.

  6. Pingback: Daphodill's Garden

  7. great points, gave me something to think about as I work out my ms, 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
    keep the suspense ‘real’

  9. Good points. The overall theme seems to be the need to set things up properly – enough clues but not too many.

    The key to a successful twist is surely how much information you hold back. Guy Gavriel Kay uses a different approach to this in The Lions of Al-Rassan, sometimes holding back which character something has happened to. It builds tension, but it can also feel a bit forced. I wrote a whole post about it last week if you’re interested:
    http://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/holding-back-lessons-from-al-rassan-4/

  10. Gimmicky writing is a legitimate fear of mine. It’s hard doing the perfect set up to delight and surprise people!

    • It is hard. But that’s why we have people help us out, like beta readers. I also try to remind myself no matter how good it is, I won’t please everyone. That helps me deal with the pressure by lightening it a little.

  11. I couldn’t possibly agree more, Victoria. The surprise effect seems to occur in book 2 of some trilogies where authors looking to beef up the plot decide to shake things up by turning good characters evil with no previous indication that something was wrong personality wise. Foreshadowing is a writer’s best friend,

    • Foreshadowing is really essential. And it doesn’t have to be obvious, “beat you over the head” stuff either. I don’t know why some writers seem to think it does… Subtlety can be just as, if not more, effective.

  12. Maybe it would be best if writers, who intend to do a series, pan or outline at least the first two books in that series; that way they can foreshadow events in the earlier books and do the revelations in the second, third book.
    Readers can tell when something has been forced in just to increase the tension. Planning beforehand can help to avoid this, even if you decide not to use it all!

  13. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-16-2014 | The Author Chronicles

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