Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters—or in this case, or readers. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your stories need to connect with readers.
If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.
This week . . .
The poet Robert Frost wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
In this post we’ll set aside for a moment the idea of our characters being surprised, and concentrate on surprising our readers, though I think we’ll end up seeing that in regards to surprise, at least, our characters and our readers can be considered one and the same.
Which death is preferable to every other? The unexpected.
Surprises are foolish things.
The pleasure is not enhanced and the inconvenience is often considerable.
Though not everyone likes surprises—I’ve given strict “no surprise party” instructions to everyone who knows me—there is real science to indicate that we actually do respond positively to surprises, at least if that surprise is harmless and/or pleasurable.
Dr. Gregory Burns of Emory University in Atlanta ran a study in which volunteers’ brains were monitored as they were given either water or fruit juice at regular, then at irregular intervals. What he found was that when the juice came as a surprise—not anticipated by a pattern the subject had gotten used to—the juice tasted better. The surprise of it helped activate the subject’s pleasure centers.
Though I’m sure Dr. Burns wouldn’t have gotten the same pleasure responses if the juice was replaced by electric shocks, I think we can easily equate the taste of fruit juice with reading a good book. We know it’s not just harmless but actually good for us, so when we get an unexpected jolt of good storytelling, we respond at least as positively as we might from a squirt of fruit juice in our mouths.
So-called “surprisologist” Tania Luna, interviewed at Psychology Today, said:
Surprise is the neuropsychological equivalent of a pause button. It makes us stop what we’re doing, hijacks our attention, and forces us to pay attention. It also intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent. Every surprise, big or small, activates the brain’s surprise sequence: freeze, find, shift, share. (Freeze and pay attention. Get curious and find an explanation. Shift your perspective. Share your experience with others.)
Think about those four aspects of a “surprise sequence” when your characters are confronted with the unexpected.
Still, the concept of “surprise” in fiction ends up falling into the concept of a “surprise twist,” some plot point that sends your story off in an unexpected direction. For many of us, and frankly, I hope, most if not all of us, the (surprise, by definition) plot twist is a non-optional component of storytelling, or as Boris Pasternak said, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”
Lester Dent, in his famous Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, put it this way:
When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until—surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
Dent focuses on the idea of manipulating reader expectations, and this is shared by others with good advice for writers.
In her Writer’s Digest article “4 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist” Rachel Randall advises us to “eliminate the obvious,” “redirect suspicion,” “avoid gimmicks,” and “write toward your readers’ reaction.”
I’ll leave you to follow the link back to her article rather than repeating that information here. Her advice, drawn from her book Story Trumps Structure, is quite enlightening on the subject. Even from the headlines, though, we can see how she’s also working toward manipulating reader expectations.
And so does David Lazar, who topped Rachel Randall by one in his Write It Sideways guest post “5 Tips for Writing an Effective Plot Twist.” Here we’re advised to “give it an open ending,” “use an untrustworthy narrator,” “reverse character roles,” “throw your reader into the mix,” and “try an unexpected kill.”
It seems to me that all this can be reduced to a focus on what, exactly, your point-of-view (POV) character knows in any precise moment in the story.
By now your should know how I feel about writing from a tight POV, even in third person. There is no such thing as “third person omniscient.” We can only call that “third person lazy.” There. I said it. Again.
Maintaining a tight POV character means your readers will be surprised by what surprises your character because your readers don’t, necessarily, know any more than that character knows.
Limiting POV doesn’t necessarily mean maintaining only one POV character, we can still be surprised by what none of your POV characters know. Even if you write from multiple POVs, the surprise comes from the collision of plans—the villain wants X, the hero wants Y, and when those two streams collide, both plans are thrown for a surprising loop, and more so if there’s a secondary character on course Z.
Another key point shared by Lester Dent, Rachel Randal, and David Lazar, is that these surprises still must be grounded in the particular logic of the story. Just dropping stuff in out of nowhere doesn’t necessarily make for a good plot twist, and laziness in the crafting of a narrative surprise will lose many more readers than maybe any other error in authorial judgment.
Here’s another example of that moment in which your own inner voice must be heeded. If you find yourself thinking, “It’ll be okay—people won’t think about it that much,” or “No one will notice,” or any thoughts like that—STOP!
This is your own internal alarm system telling you that something’s wrong, even as it also tries to protect you by telling you everything is going to be okay. If you sense a problem, there’s a problem. Keep thinking—work through the details, ground that plot twist in the appropriate set of clues, and so on.
These surprise twists can come, as Lester Dent advises for the would-be pulp author, rather often in various “sizes,” or they can be more carefully parsed out or even saved almost entirely for the end. Jennifer Griffith Delgado put together a list of the Most Mind-Blowing Surprise Endings from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, which shows the power of the final surprise twist.
I’m as much a sucker for a surprise ending as the next guy and though I know some people who refuse to admit to ever having been drawn in by a surprise ending, I desperately hope that I will be. I’m delighted to admit that I did not see the end of The Sixth Sense coming and it remains one of my favorite movies. I’ll also admit to being puzzled by how that could have been engineered by the same filmmaker who tried to tell us that plants were conspiring to make us kill ourselves in another movie in which not only did I not see that surprise ending coming, but didn’t buy it—even within the context of the movie’s fantastical reality.
The big surprise twist ending is, maybe more than any other aspect of storytelling, digital: It either works or it doesn’t. By heading in that direction, you’re going all in—and I encourage you to try, just be careful, be smart, and write for all you’re worth!
That said, your ending doesn’t have to be a wildly unexpected shock to be effective. If your plot flows smoothly from small but solidly constructed surprise to small but solidly constructed surprise, the ending can follow that same pattern and the overall experience of the book will be positive and satisfying.
Big or small, we need surprises, not just as writers or even as readers.
In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Man is always more than he can know of himself; consequently, his accomplishments, time and again, will come as a surprise to him.”