Thursday, January 05, 2017

Surprise me

I was on a reading tear the last few weeks of the year. My goal was to respond to every requested full and I almost made it (three remain...I ran out of steam on 12/23/16!)

One of the consistent weaknesses I noticed was the story didn't surprise me.

Good writing requires pacing and tension, yes.
But good story telling means your audience gasps.

I want to gasp. I want to put the manuscript down and just enjoy that moment when the author turns the story upside down.

Think of the movie The Sting

(There will be spoilers here just in case you've been on Carkoon for the past 40 years and missed it.)

The movie unfolds as the confidence game being run on Doyle Lonegan is put into play. The audience sees all the important information, but what it MEANS is the surprise.

There are two particular places where the audience gasps with surprise in the movie:

The first is when Hooker (Robert Redford) is leaving the diner via the alley after breakfast and his night with Loretta the waitress. Loretta was gone when he woke up; all her clothes were gone, but his money was still in his wallet. Neither Hooker nor the audience knows what happened to her. But, in the alley, Hooker sees her. She walks toward him, smiling very slightly. He's glad to see her.

Then, a gloved gunman behind Hooker takes aim and shoots. Not Hooker,  Loretta.  Hooker and the audience are stunned.  The gunman runs up, turns Loretta over, revealing a silenced pistol in her right hand.  "She was gonna kill ya," the gunman tells Hooker.  Turns out Loretta is Loretta Salina, the killer engaged by Doyle Lonegan. There have been references to Salina earlier; but none of them used her first name, and in movie full of gents, a lady assassin was  real suprise. Plus, she'd just spent the night with Robert Redford! And now she wants to kill him! Gasp indeed!

The second surprise is of course the end, just after Doyle Lonegan is rushed out of the betting parlor by Sgt. Snyder cause "there are dead guys here." Only of course, neither Gondorff nor Hooker ARE dead. The audience gasps when Hooker opens his eyes, and gasps again when Gondorff comes "back" to life.

All this is a surprise even though we actually SEE Hooker putting blood squibs in his mouth when he dresses that morning.

That's what surprise is: we had the info, but we didn't know what it meant.

One of the best ways to build plot, and surprise, was explained pretty neatly by a terrific author named Jeff Somers: figure out what's supposed to happen. Then do something else.

If you want a great example of that, rent the delightful movie Hopscotch with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Walter Matthau has worked out a timetable for the trick he needs to pull off. Everything is going well...then bam. His car gets a flat tire.  Didn't see that coming!  It's a surprise!

Surprise does NOT mean aliens arrive in chapter 14, unless you are writing a novel about aliens arriving. It does not mean Felix Buttonweazer learns to fly when he is defenestrated by his nemesis, unless you are writing magical realism and it's all a dream.

A good surprise makes perfect sense but you just didn't see it coming.

In other words, really really simple stuff...and hard as hell to carry off.


Lennon Faris said...

OK, yeah, definitely one of my favorite aspects of a book or movie. On the flip side, one of my most hateful things is the surprise with NO buildup or clues (or ones that are very poorly done), the Deus ex machina. It is really hard to get it right.

OT - hey, guess what I did last night? (yo, 2N's) FINISHED MY MSS!!!

First draft, and long ways to go, but I'm stoked bc now comes the fun part :)

Colin Smith said...

I'm really a French call girl named Claudette Jeaunesse!!


OK, not really (and those who have met me in person saw through that immediately).

One of the things I did over the last month was to watch "24." All 9 seasons. My goodness is that show an object lesson in the craft of storytelling. You have pacing, suspense, and surprises out the wazoo! One of the main reasons I watched all 9 seasons is I couldn't not watch all 9 seasons! How is Jack Bauer going to get out of this? Just when all the plans are coming together, guess what? One of the guys involved in the plan is working for the other side! Just when you think all is well, a main character is killed--whaaat? There's a bigger plot going on??!

I came away with two thoughts:

1) If I could write novels as "page-turning" as "24," I'd be set for life.
2) Someone needs to put the two Jacks on a Presidential Election ticket for 2020: Bauer and Reacher. Bauer for President, Reacher for Veep. :)

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and this:

(There will be spoilers here just in case you've been on Carkoon for the past 40 years and missed it.)

In fact, I've never seen "The Sting." I know of it, and know basically that it's about gambling and a sting operation... but that's about it. How did you know, Janet? 8-O

Tricia Quinnies said...

Introducing my teen son to Classic movies and Paul Newman seems to be in all of them. What? The Sting is clever, fresh and great inspiration to me as a writer. I love writing twists and omgee moments even if it makes my brain hurt! Happy New Year!
Tricia Q.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin Colin has been on Carkoon for 40 years. I knew it. Now there's a surprise.

And Jeff Somers lives with multiple demon possessed cats that twist his plots into unruly knots while he's contemplating his liquor cabinet and trying to figure out why the whisky is all gone. You can't always depend on demonic cats to build eager agent gasps.

But yeah, the best stories will garner a gasp over a sigh. Few books make me gasp. Precious few so I suppose this is quite a hurdle. The rodent wheel continues to spin me toward madness.

Jessica said...

Hi everyone! I've been following the blog for months, but this is the first time I've mustered up the courage to comment :)

I agree with the last part of Janet's post--pulling off a surprise is one of the hardest things for me. I'm constantly struggling with beta readers who guess the whole plot of my WIP on page thirteen.

One thing that's related to surprise is a high re-readability factor. An example would be that on page three the MC mentions an old injury offhand, and then you find out what happened at the end of the book. But the next time you read it, you know why they were rubbing their arm throughout the whole book. I love to drop little hints like this in my work (also it's a bit easier than Janet's amazing examples).

Off topic, but thank you for this blog, Janet. As an aspiring writer, I've learned so much from your posts. And this community is wonderful as well! I'm glad I finally decided to contribute.

Colin Smith said...

Hello, Jessica!! I'm glad you decided to comment too! :)

You're right--it is hard to pull off that surprise. If you read enough, you'll start to develop an intuition for where a plot is going. There were plenty of times watching "24" when I anticipated a twist, especially after a couple of seasons. But the writers were still able to drop enough major unexpected twists to keep me engaged. I guess the trick is not to make EVERY twist contrary to expectations, but have a handful of those kinds of twists placed at strategic points... like, perhaps, page thirteen. Just when your beta readers think they've guessed the plot, and are nodding and smiling to themselves... BAM! :)

Amy Johnson said...

Yay for Lennon. Have fun.
Colin, er...Claudette, thanks for my morning chuckle.
Welcome, Jessica. I just started commenting last year. Such a welcoming group at this here reef. (I like clicking on "I am not a robot." I read it with a robot voice every time I click. I'm a simpleton, and doing so makes me happy.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Welcome Jessica Make yourself at home. Colin will be along shortly with a welcome kit and possibly cookies. He has master bakers among his many offspring.

The water is fine and hardly any of us bite. You know, aside from the shark but that's her job.

Jessica said...

Thank you for your kind welcome, everyone! Colin, I'll take your advice into consideration--time to rework a twist for page thirteen. I'll also take copious amounts of cookies :)

Megan V said...

Hello, Jessica!! Welcome to the Reef :)

Way to go Lennon for finishing your MS!

And thank you QOTKU for helping me come up with a revamp of one of my current WIPs. Those aliens in chapter 14(better known as the buttonwheezers) really needed to be defenestrated. But really...I think I just untangled a nice knot in the thriller I'm working on.

Every now and then it's possible to forget to insert a good shock.

InkStainedWench said...

Welcome, Jessica! And congratz, Lennon. Don't forget to let the first draft cool off for a time before diving into edits!

My favorite genre is mystery/suspense, where no magical or supernatural solutions are allowed. I love it when something happens in the story that couldn't possibly happen. It's delicious, because you know the author is going to explain it, but you can't imagine how.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Jessica... Welcome!

Colin... I love 24. You know somebody is a real bad ass when they only have two facial expressions: Steely stare and squinting steely stare.

Lennon... YAY you!

I'm off to feed donkeys and pigs, but I'll be back. I've got a question about the topic of this post.

Michael Seese said...

@Lennon Faris, totally agree with you about the deux ex machina. IMHO, that was one of the downsides of Da Vinci Code. I know there were several instances. The one that always comes to mind is the empty bullet shell in the back of the truck, which allowed Langdon to keep the door from being shut, aiding his escape.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

As soon as I read this post, the first book I thought of was I LET YOU GO by Clare Mackintosh. I gasped more than once while reading then went back through the pages to map out what happened. It was exactly what Janet said - "...we had the info, but we didn't know what it meant." It was so well done, I'm still thinking about it - and I read it back in May. :)

Peggy said...

Janet clearly deserves her crown as QOTKU based on her taste in movies.

I think it can also be satisfying to have enough clues that the reader (or viewer) can catch the twist riiiight before it happens and relish the anticipation--I saw Star Trek: Beyond last weekend and twigged to the climactic solution just before the protagonists (as a team) put it together. I actually yelled "OH!" when I figured it out (to the annoyance of my movie-watching companions) but the pieces had all been in place--Chekov's tape deck, if you will.

I definitely agree about those little clues that come up later (the injury, etc).

What I struggle with is how much info to give if you're in a very close POV--right now I'm writing a piece that's 3rd close and the character is sort of shying away from things (he's a mob guy, and tends to think in the sort of euphamisms he speaks with too). I mean, I don't think through my own whole backstory when I'm thinking--especially if it's something bad--but I don't want to be accused of lying to the readers or pulling a GOTCHA! I'm trying to leave breadcrumbs for a twist, not a switcheroo.

I guess the only way to know if it's working or not is to take Carolynn's New Year advice and GET IT DONE!

(p.s.--Amy Johnson--I definitely just read "I am not a robot" in a robot voice. I guess I'm a simpleton too. :) )

John Davis Frain said...

Claudette! Love it! I'd been suspicious, but I didn't want to say anything.

Nearing the end of my WIP, and this post has set my mind ablaze. Yes, yes, yes, I need a couple of great surprise twists in the story. It's such a delicate balance, knowing you've given the clue without hitting the reader over the head. Such a simple thing, yet such a difficult thing.

Thank you for a great post. I'm off to see if Hopscotch is on Netflix. Please please please...

(But really, even if it's not, I get the concept from Janet's description so maybe I'm stealing writing time with a convenient excuse to be lazy.)

Cheryl said...

We Were Liars, by E Lockhart, was my recent experience with this. Unreliable narrator with patchy memory loss, family tension, switches from present to past and back again, it all led up to a revelation that by the time it came I only had a suspicion of the truth, but certainly hadn't figured out the full extent of it.

I immediately had to go back and read certain sections again.

Mister Furkles said...

Here is a true life gasp related to the Sting. Back in college in Cleveland—I think it was in the sixteenth century—the Sting opened at the local shopping center. So a buddy and I walked there Saturday night. Sunday night, I went to the commons snack bar and they were playing The Entertainer on the sound system. In those days, it took months for Hollywood to release LPs from the movies—mule trains are slow.

I stopped by the little room with the phonograph and tape equipment to asked how they got the Sing’s music so quickly.

A blank open-mouthed stare from the operator: “I’m not playing music. Somebody’s down stairs on the piano.”

I slipped quietly down the stairs and peeked into the piano room. There was Luther, one of my suite-mates, playing The Entertainer. He’d gone to the movie Friday night. He often practiced his coronet but could also play the piano. Sunday night he played The Sting theme by ear having only heard it once. Not a practice but end-to-end without hesitation.

Gasp! Real talent. Who knew?

Try pulling your surprises from real life. They’re easier to set up.

Colin Smith said...

Mister Furkles: Of course, given Scott Joplin wrote "The Entertainer" about 70 years before the "The Sting" was made, it's possible your friend Luther already knew the piece, but you had never heard him play it before. That, in itself, is no small feat. Having tried my hand(s) at some of Joplin's music, it's not easy to play well. Whether or not Luther played it from memory having learned it, or from memory having heard it the night before, it's still a nice "surprise" story. :)

Unknown said...

I echo all the love here for The Sting, and I love Mister Furkles's story. I rewatched the movie a few months ago on TV.

Writing has definitely made me much more attuned to (and critical of) storytelling in movies. To the excellent point from InkStainedWench, a movie I watched recently on a plane drove me absolutely bonkers because it set itself up as mystery/suspense but concluded with a plot twist that absolutely defied all reasonable earthly physics. Argh!

Dena Pawling said...

I've mentioned here before that Hopscotch is my absolute favorite movie. Well of course I love everything with Walter Matthau but that's another story. I have Hopscotch on VHS and I watch it at least once a year. Maybe I should see if I can buy it in a more permanent format.

For me, one of the hardest things in writing is trying to figure out whether something I think is a surprise, actually is a surprise to the reader. To me, I know it's coming, even if it's the 15th option from my brainstorming session. So I'm really happy when my betas tell me they loved my plot twist.

I read a lot of mysteries, and of course the whodunnit is supposed to be a surprise, but I guess who it is about 75% of the time. It's still fun for me tho.

The last book I read that had twists I did NOT see coming was Patrick Lee's Runner. Two twists that made sense but were a total surprise to me. Talk about taking a story in an entirely different direction! I haven't read his other books yet. They're in my TBR pile.

Congrats Lennon!

Hi Jessica!

nightsmusic said...

Scyfi ran a Twilight Zone marathon this past week over New Year's eve. Though dated, when Serling put in a surprise at the end, it was usually a brilliant surprise. Some of the best short story writing ever. Like The Sting, that's what a twist should be.

Colin Smith said...

Dena: A hearty AMEN to what you said about RUNNER by Patrick Lee(nytba). Similarly, UNRAVELING by Elizabeth Norris has a twist near the end that made sense, but totally caught me off-guard. I was not expecting the story to take THAT kind of a turn.

OK... so talking about UNRAVELING just sent me on an unexpected bunny trail. I reviewed UNRAVELING on my blog, and my review reminded me that my copy of the book was an ARC I received as a prize from Her Sharkiness for the first Writing Contest I won back in 2012. My review makes reference to an article I posted the day before about having a herniated disc, which, of course, I had to re-read, and it brought back all kinds of painful memories.

I didn't expect that! :)

Claire Bobrow said...

I just have three words: The Crying Game.

Okay, a couple more. Double Indemnity. "Straight down the line..."

Weirdly, I started re-watching The Sting over vacation. Made me miss all those actors. I had a crush on Robert Shaw when I was a teenager. Can't really explain that, but I think it had something to do with his voice. Ditto Gene Hackman.

It's harder for me to think of big surprises when it comes to books. In recent memory, Game of Thrones comes to mind.

Congrats, Lennon!! And welcome, Jessica!

Craig F said...

The aliens aren't supposed to show until chapter 14? Oh, chit, man.

My sci-fi ms starts with the aliens. At least that is the way the history books of Earth paint them.

In truth they had developed a tech that could change the face of war. They tried to hide it but then the ITER melted down. They were heroes until the assorted militaries of the world realized what they could do with those things.

They found a way out and found a nice planet. Then Earth finds them and sixteen year old girl is pulled to Earth. That is the start of the book.

Lucy Crowe said...

Mister Furkles, I love your piano story, and I so agree - the best surprises are pulled from real life. Which sometimes makes them less than magical, but- once in a rare while - makes them so much more. As a writer, I have a terrible time pulling off surprises, just because I see them coming myself for so long; I begin dropping clues way too far in advance. Yet another skill to polish in 2017!

roadkills-r-us said...

Dena: That's what early readers are for. 8^) Although since I am usually pantsing most of it, things often surprise me as I go. (I'm usually experiencing it for the first time as I write it.)

Amy: Reading that in a robot voice doesn't make you a simpleton. It makes you family- which might make you twitch, but oh well.

Mister: (May I call you Mister?) That's a pretty amazing story! I definitely agree; this is one of the areas where "write what you know" is excellent advice. It may look completely different to everyone but you, but it will likely still feel real.

Jessica: Welcome! Way to go stepping out. And I agree; I want little hints! An occasional, obfuscated huge thing is OK, but should not be common. If used often, that approach tends to end up being either artificial, obvious, or at least annoying- and possibly all three.

Lennon: Congrats!!!

All: I have never seen The Sting. The Entertainer was played to death when it came out, and really got on my nerves. As a result, I never got around to seeing the movie. Sounds like I need to.

For me, surprises are a must in fiction. Without no surprises, no matter how good the writing, I will likely die of boredom and my corpse will stink up the pages forever. I expect several in any novel, with at least one big one. And it doesn't have to be at the end!

One of the things I always ask readers (early or otherwise) is, "What surprised you?" Sometimes their answers surprise me!

Julie Weathers said...

Welcome, Jessica! Colin may have the cookies, but I have the Shiner Bock...and fruitcake. I have fruitcake.

Lennon Congratulations! Now come finish mine, please. That is such a great feeling to type, "The End".


I've always been a huge fan of The Twilight Zone. One of the best was an episode where a nerdy little guy loves to read, but he's nagged constantly by his wife about his reading. Disaster happens and it appears he may be the last man on earth and surrounded by all these books to enjoy in peace. Then he breaks his very thick glasses so he can't see to read. Classic.

I plant clues throughout whatever I'm writing because I despise the miraculous save (DEM). The problem is when the clues give away something that was supposed to be a surprise, but I'm not sure everything needs to be unanticipated. It wouldn't be realistic. It makes the ones you do pull off that much more special.

I read something a while back that was a genuine page turner. Toward the end I was just exhausted, though. Every time I thought we were getting close to a resolution, up would pop another surprise and down another trail we'd go. Often these were because the character just did stupid stuff, which was doubly frustrating. "Don't go to town with Black Jack, he's a scapgrace of the highest order!"

"Oh, I'll be fine, tata."

"Black Jack! Why are you tying me to the railroad track? Help! Help!"

One of the large surprises in Rain Crow has to do with the paranormal arc. I don't think anyone will see the end coming, but do we really need a paranormal war between the states spy novel?

Who knows?

I may finish the thing and decide it was a fun writing exercise.

Writing quote of the day and maybe this is especially appropriate.

Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Lennooooon finished. Send up the fireworks, yee hah!

Feels good huh.

Unknown said...

Oh, I loved that movie HOPSCOTCH!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

As we’re discussing the road to writing books that knock your socks off, I’m curious about the success of books that are predictable.

A few years ago, I wanted to jump genre from nonfiction to women’s fiction. I asked my publisher to release me of my contract (as they don’t pub wf). They did, on good terms. I began reading boatloads of wf, joined numerous wf writing groups, and read countless blogs by authors of wf.

I began to see an endless trend, a one size fits all blurb: Confirmed bachelorette Amelia Deadheart shook the dust of Smallville off her high heels with the intention of never returning. When billionaire developer Randy Studly threatens the family farm, Amelia has no choice but to dig out her cowgirl boots, leave her glamorous city job, and head back to the farm to confront Randy. Sparks fly over water rights and disaster looms for the entire freaking town unless Amelia’s childhood best friend, Olive Branch (who never left Smallville) can convince these two kids they’re really in love.

I realize, of course, there are tons of wf titles NOT in this trope. But why is there So. Much. That. Is. The authors of these books have agents. They’re with big houses like Lake Union, Mira and other imprints of Harlequin. I suppose the obvious answer is, the trope sells. Maybe my question is, are there really agents who yell, “Oh, goody,” when another Amelia Deadheart lands on their desk? And how is it even possible to query these mss in a new and fresh way?

(Just in case anyone is curious, after months and months of reading I never went down the wf path and there are no Amelia Deadhearts in my ms).

Barbara Etlin said...

Or how about when Rosalyn falls down the elevator shaft in L.A. Law?

Or when Don Draper has a hidden identity in Mad Men?

Or when Will, one of the stars of the show, is gunned down in court in The Good Wife?

Thanks for the reminder about surprises. This is just what I need to add to my manuscript.

Great use of "defenestration", Janet!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Claudette, Hank I knew it.

Jessica, welcome to the reef. It's hard, commenting for the first time, but well, now your chum.

Hey I'm off for the afternoon. Up at 3am so do I nap or write.
Nap or write.
Nap or writ...
Nap or wri....

Cheryl said...

Melanie Sue, There are a lot of readers who are married to their tropes, that's not in question, but the one thing I see from Harlequin editors' wishlists is new variations on the tropes. Amelia's a boxer in the big city, instead of a lawyer. Randy and Olive are engaged.

They want to be surprised by little things, not enormous things. Sometimes when you eat lasagna you want the familiarity of pasta-cheese-tomato. You don't want to find a surprise layer of salt cod, but switching out the ricotta for goat cheese might work for you.

Colin Smith said...

Cheryl: ... or flat strips of zucchini instead of lasagna... Mmmm! :)

Janice Grinyer said...

I dont want to stop at the gasping part, I want to make people poop in their pants. I have to make sure my writing isnt constipated. Got it.

Nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keys!

Theresa said...

I'm probably risking defenestration here, but I read the end of a novel after reading the first chapter or so. Big surprises and/or twisty plots are okay, but for me as a reader, they aren't must haves. (Like Julie pointed out, sometimes they can be over done and leave the reader exhausted.) If I'm intrigued by the ending, I know the book is worth my time to read. I'm in it for the appealing writing style, interesting characters, and compelling plot.

Lennon Faris said...

Cheryl - "surprise layer of salt cod" - it's not often something makes me laugh and gag at the same time. Well done.

All- I love being able to share here the milestones that are invisible to the rest of the world - so thanks for getting excited about my news. It means a lot!

Janice Grinyer said...

Just read the comments, and have to say, WAY TO GO LENNON!!!

I hope you have rewarded yourself well, now that you are editing - chocolate and more chocolate should do the trick!

Sherry Howard said...

Serendipity. That's what today's column is-that combined with the fact that I almost missed it because of some craziness today. Residing JR today flicked a light bulb on about what was missing in my ms, the one that's going out on sub next week. Editing table, here I come! Thanks Janet and everyone else, I really needed this today!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Great job, Lennon. I am on draft 2 which has become the monster that ate my living room. Enjoy moving closer to the goal post.

Stacy said...

So Theresa is one of those people.

I suppose you dog-ear your pages, too. ;)

Susan said...

Melanie: I think that's the understandable but disappointing reality of the publishing world--these formulas work, the books sell, so they're leery of taking risks outside of that tried and tested zone. It's understandable because it's the business of selling books; it's disappointing because I really believe readers are clamoring for something new, which is why romance is such a hot genre in indie publishing, where authors are more likely to take those risks (and succeed because of it). I'd just encourage you to keep writing what you want to write--eventually the tide turns.

Theresa: I'm with you, and I'm glad you said something because I wasn't going to comment today (I'm also battling a massive flare-up which has kept me away). I read for the same reasons you do in addition to favoring quiet fiction, which means I don't need those explosive surprises to keep turning the page. Especially with coming-of-age books, it's the attachment I feel to the characters and the intrigue of their reactions to their situations that keep the story moving along--too many surprises in this kind of fiction usually makes me feel like the author doesn't understand their own characters or the book's trajectory--a surprise simply for the sake of a surprise feels like a cheap and amateurish ploy.

I feel like commercial fiction may have its own set of rules, so I'm approaching it more from a literary angle. I think, like Janet says, the key is to keep it relatively simple. There's a really fine line between intrigue and surprise. Intrigue is what keeps your finger hovering over the corner of the page, ready to turn. For the most part, it's the character development that brings the intrigue. Surprise is one step away from gratuitous shock value, and you threaten losing your readers entirely if you go too far.

For example, there have been a number of popular authors lately (both in literary fiction and commercial fiction) who flip the story on its head with surprise endings that don't match the trajectory of the story or out-of-character reactions that negate all previous development. The only purpose, as far as I can tell, is so the author can smugly say, "l bet you didn't see that coming." But instead of being impressed, I'm infuriated. I read--and keep reading--because I'm invested in the story and the characters, and if you're going to cheapen the experience by introducing an element purely for the shock-value, then you can bet I won't be returning for the next book.

Your analogy is spot on, Cheryl. Surprise me with salt cod when I'm expecting lasagna, and someone will be wearing it.

nightsmusic said...

Julie One of my favorite episodes as well! I also thought the one where the three men take off for another planet, but crash on a desert alien planet was also very good. One astronaut ends up killing off the other two for the little bit of water they had, then climbs to the top of the mountain range only to learn he's less than 5 miles from Vegas and they never left the planet. Didn't see that one coming the first time. Lots of wonderful episodes I could name, but they were all so, so good.

Stacy said...

Congratulations, Lennon!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Janet, okay so I'm thinking about this surprise thing a lot since I read your post because my second shelf novel has a doozey in it. You do not see it coming and when it does it's one of those WTF, of course, I get it, that's what she meant, moments.

So Janet and Reiders, here's my dilemma.

How are surprises handled in a query? Spoiler alert ruins the impact.
It's a Catch22. Divulge in the query and the surprise is blown, DO NOT and perhaps a full is not requested.

I'm digging out my novel. I wanna be surprised again.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Perhaps a place to start is by asking: Does the Big Twist change a) who the MC is, b) the crisis, or c) the MC's dilemma? For example, let's say your query blurb runs (essentially) something like this:

John is an accountant who finds out his biggest client is selling arms to terrorists. Does he turn them in, risking not only the future of his business, but his life? Or does he keep his mouth shut and enjoy the payday?

Now, would the fact that, say, the client turns out to be his father whom he presumed dead, change the query? I'd say no, because the essential premise is the same.

Does that help?

furrykef said...

I remember when I was reading Ender's Game. The name "Mazer Rackham" occurs throughout the book, but there's one moment where it appears in a context that is utterly shocking. If you've read the book, you know the one. If you haven't, explaining it won't convey the effect properly.

I actually found this a little discouraging because I realized this was my competition; this was what I was up against in writing my own novel. I don't know if I'm a good enough storyteller to pull off things like that.

abnormalalien said...

Melanie , I had to snicker and come back to warn you. I was scrolling through BookBub (I like to find freebies to read on my phone for when I don't have a paperback handy). One of today's descriptions was eerily similar to your example.

"When Jaxton goes to Kansas for business, he clashes with Ami, a woman trying to save her family’s land."

I think I've read a few novels of this sort but I hadn't noticed it's popularity. But I don't read a lot of wf.

Joseph S. said...

It’s time I watched The Sting again. It’s one of my favorite movies and yet I don’t remember the woman being shot or the woman herself for that matter. If you haven’t watched it, get it. The music alone is worth the price of admission. Great Directing. And Paul Newman and Robert Redford play off each other fantastically well (just as they did in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

Nothing in my WIP surprises me at this point. Comments from early readers sorta were along the lines of one gasp and three I-didn’t-see-that-coming’s. The biggest surprise to me in my WIP is that the country of Colombia was in the midst of a five-decade Civil War when I wrote the first draft; and now they’ve entered into a Peace Accord, and who knows how that’ll turn out. The big unresolved mystery to me now is how I’ll handle this in the revision.

My favorite GASP book was “Gone Girl.” Harlan Coben’s “Gone for Good” had its moments, too. (Maybe I just like books with the word ‘Gone’ in the title).

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, the surprise changes EVERYTHING.
It changes in a wonderful way, and then SURPRISE, it doesn't change everything, in an even more-wonderful way.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Ramona was sitting next to me purring away when a photo of a cat came up.
She reached over and shut the computer off.
Surprised me.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Then stick with the set up prior to the Big Surprise. And remember, the query is just the hook to get the agent to read the pages. If the agent loves the novel, I hardly think she'll turn you down because it didn't turn out quite as the query suggested.

BJ Muntain said...

Good going, Lennon!

I think, when talking about tropes and genres, we need to remember that every genre has its favourite tropes.

In the case of Romance, it is very much formulaic. That's because Romance is read as a soother. When life is hard, Romance shows you that there is always a happy ending. The boy and girl always get together. This is why, when the economy tanks and publishing starts failing, Romance is the one genre that sells MORE instead of less. (I'm sorry, but I don't know much about 'women's fiction', except that 'women's fiction' isn't big-R Romance. I hadn't realized it was as formulaic as Romance.)

Mysteries are read to make you think. Thrillers are read for the excitement. These are good genres for gasping surprises.

Science fiction and fantasy are read for their worlds, the action, the thinking... different subgenres encourage these differently. But in all of these, surprises work well.

2Ns: Big twists are not mentioned in queries, unless the twist impacts the character's choices and/or the consequences of their decision. Even then, you don't mention that it's a 'big twist' or surprise. It's usually something like, "When Amelia Deadhart discovers that Randy is really an alien from Mars, she has to decide if the little town is really worth risking an entire planet over." Or is that what you mean by giving away the surprise? How close to the end is your surprise? If it's really close to the end, it may not be mentioned at all, because the ending isn't mentioned, just the character's choice. Is the surprise crucial to the choice and consequences? If so, then I think you have to mention it. Agents aren't necessarily reading queries for entertainment value, they're reading them to see if they're interested enough to sell it. If the surprise is handled well in the query, they may be thinking, "That's interesting. I wonder how she does that."

furrykef: Orson Scott Card has been writing for a long time. He has a fan following that it will take a long time to match. You are not competing against him. You are striving to be successful - perhaps as successful as he is. And you have writing skills that he doesn't. Not everyone can do everything as well, or even the same way. Be yourself.

Claire Bobrow said...

furrykef: the twist in Ender's Game caught me by surprise, too. Loved it.

And back to the movie thread (can't help it), what about The Usual Suspects? The twist in that one took me completely by surprise.

John Davis Frain said...

Joe Snoe, read Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone when you get a chance. It's twice the read of most Gone titles. Seriously, though, it is a fantastic story even if he had named it Lost, Baby, Lost.

Lennon, that's fantastic news. I'm coming down the home stretch to join you...

Steve Stubbs said...

Thanks for a great post. You just reminded us of one of the great movies of all time. Paul Newman also starred in another great film, THE VERDICT, which contains great surprises as well.

I feel compelled to mention the Alfred Hitchcock film PSYCHO, Hitch surprised the audience by using a technique he called “reversing the cliche.” It was a given in moviemaking then that stars survived to the end of the picture. So Hitch reversed the cliche by introducing Janet Leigh early on and then killing her off within the first ten minutes. Movie historians say the audiences were gasping for breath and saying aloud, “No! It can’t be!” HITCHCOCK, the movie about the making of PSYCHO, with Anthony Hopkins playing Hitchcock is also superb in case you have not seen it. Hopkins has you believing he really is Hitchcock before the end of the film. So reversing the cliche is one way of getting audiences fo gasp.

There is another superb example of reversing the cliche in the movie SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, but I won’t be a cad and say what it is. Suffice it to say the movie is great and the technique is primo.

I also feel compelled to mention PSYCHO 2, which is actually better than the original IMO, both for the brilliant plot twists and the log line. I was in my car when the thing was released, and a voice came on the radio: “It’s twenty-five years later. And Norman Bates is coming home. PSYCHO 2.” Normally I would not go to see a movie like that. But that log line was irresistible. It was unfair. I couldn’t not watch it. I was amazed anything as easy to write as a log line could be so effective. Who knew? It’s easy.

LynnRodz said...

Surprise or no surprise, story or no story, when you had Paul Newman and Robert Redford on the screen, that's all you needed. *swoon*

Oh sorry, Janet, that wasn't your point, was it...I'll go back to my daydreaming.

Theresa said...

Ah, Stacy, I only dog ear books I'm using for research. Never, ever novels.

Joseph S. said...

Thanks, John Davis

I'll put "Gone, Baby, Gone" on my list of books to get. Checking out the reviews on his books, it looks like I should read many of Dennis Lehane's novels.

Maybe someday I 'll write a book worthy to have "Gone" in the title.

nightsmusic said...

Lynn should I tell you then that I had dinner with Paul Newman? In person, not eating my meal in front of the TV? And his eyes...oh...his eyes...