The Element Of Surprise

When did we become convinced that what people want from books is, to quote a friend’s title “Free surprise in every box”?

Yes, like the rest of you I love O’Henry and his surprise endings, and I became very fond of Jill McGown (who either has died or been sidelined as a writer, as her series stopped abruptly) because she could present three plausible solutions, before turning it all around, with known facts, and make the final solution shocking and yet logical.

However, I also re-read a lot of books and if what I were looking for was surprise, that wouldn’t happen.

But because I’m Odd, let’s say that it’s a fallacious theory, because if people wanted “a surprise in every box” sagas, fairytales and romances wouldn’t be NEARLY as popular as they have been/are throughout history.

Honestly, I think this obsession with “you must have an unexpected ending” (which I got often from editors in NYC) comes from two things:

1 Editors read a lot of submitted manuscripts (or at least they used to, when this came about, and get very bored.  So to them an unexpected ending was a bonus.)

2 The sixties made everyone think that entertainment had to have “redeeming value.”  Most of the time, of course, they meant a “social message” but they were willing to settle for something that upended your expectations.

Again, I want to point out I’m as fond of the unexpected ending as anyone else, except for two things: I think I stopped reading science fiction – for about ten years, I came back with Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams – because the “unexpected ending” either made no sense whatsoever (and then they all turned into fishes and swam around…) or wasn’t unexpected (And then a meteor wiped out the entire human race, which had it coming, the end.)

Before that, at least in my limited experience, science fiction and fantasy (like other genre literature, say romance and mystery) had certain parameters for the ending which it adhered to.  These parameters varied, depending on the sub-genre you were writing.  For instance, in Romance there is the Regency (they marry at the end), the contemporary (they marry and have a baby at the end), and the grittier contemporary/sometimes supernatural (they have a qualified happy ending, but you know they’ll be in trouble next book.)  In mystery, there’s the cozy (the villain is caught and often commits suicide, dies accidently, so you don’t have to go into the nitty gritty of trial law, etc.); the procedural (where the solution has to conform to “can it go to trial”?) and the noir/dark (the villain is found but escapes, or was not really a villain and hangs.)

In science fiction, likewise, there was the man adventures in the stars, which follows the poor boy/girl makes good (Heinlein, by and large); the post apocalyptic (things are bad but we survive.  Weak characters die/go mad.  This is similar to the colonization of new planets novel); the revolution against unjust regime (The God Machine; The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Characters survive/achieve their objective.  There’s deaths and pain along the way.); the discovery of a new process/idea/way and its improving or changing mankind (Characters usually survive and in the end have adapted to the change in things.  Sometimes profound epistemological questions are posed along the say, see City by Simak); the alien invasion (some humans survive/get through – always with deep thoughts about what it means to be human.  At least the good ones: The Puppet Masters; They Walked Like Men.)

I think the first time I realized something was seriously wrong was while reading a colonization novel, where the weak character didn’t die/go mad, but the leader did.  This leaves the colony leaderless, and then they all die.  Having read four hundred pages to get to “and they all died after going insane” made the book go against the wall with explosive force.  There was no thought-provoking anything, unless you consider “life sucks and then you die” and “humanity doesn’t have what it takes to go to the stars” thought provoking.

And then the rot spread.  One by one all the books went to Surprise!  And nine out of times it wasn’t, not really.  It was only a surprise in the sense of bait and switch, but once you’re used to bait and switch, you expect it and it’s not a surprise.

Soon every book was doing it.  And I quit reading SF, until I was wooed back and then found Baen.

I think this was about the time the generation came in who “knew” there were right and wrong ways to think, and their job was to raise the consciousness of the public.  Since they could allow no dissenting voice, they couldn’t get the thought provoking frisson that way, so they had to introduce some other element to “keep interest.”  Most of the time that was “Surprise!” which wasn’t.  (When that failed, they went to graphic violence for no purpose [which means no mil sf] and increasingly deviant sex – the example being the bestseller series that has an eight year old girl cut herself for sexual pleasure.  And, of course, sex sells.  Sort of.  Though you have to get increasingly more kinky.  They’re trying.)

I say it is our duty – as Human Wave Authors (and readers) – to replace the “there must be a surprise” expectation with the “makes you think” expectation. That makes it meaty but keeps it from being vapid.

So, surprise the gate keepers.  Write Human Wave.  Make it good.  Show them that thoughtful and deep (but not boring or drippy) CAN do well.

THAT will surprise them!


  1. “Having read four hundred pages to get to “and they all died after going insane” made the book go against the wall with explosive force.”

    I have a bad habit, mostly brought on by also having CFS: I simply can’t afford to read 400 pages – and then have to throw the book against the wall: Regardless of whether the books is going well or not, I read the first couple of chapters, and then the last three chapters.

    Then I decide if the middle is worth considering.

    Yes, it spoils some things (which I usually read anyway). But I have extremely limited energy, and I’m not going to spend it that way.

    I’ve been burned too many times. The most recently was Dimiter – written by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist – one of the best and scariest novels I have ever read – because it is so close to possible. Dimiter was difficult to start, steadily got worse (torture! gore!), there was no one to identify with… I applied the ‘end reading’ correction – and was very glad. The Exorcist was 40 years ago (showing my age). Dimiter had a 2010 copyright date; it should never have gotten published.

    I have to know how it ended (in the author’s mind) if I actually was intrigued – or stupid – enough to read a couple chapters at the beginning (some books don’t make it past the free sample), but that’s all.

    I admire your perseverance, dear lady, and your unwillingness to spoil the end of what you were reading – but I believe in self-defense.

    1. This was when I was REALLY young — around 14. I regret to say I’ve been burned often enough that if I start getting suspicious these days, I go and look at the end too. I wonder how many of us have acquired such habits.

      1. Not me. Nor do I throw the books. I mentally rewrite them. “Oh, he totally missed a neat possibility there!” “What do you mean she burst into tears, deliberately? Honestly! Why didn’t she get in his face and demand to know how much the Bad Guy paid him to keep her from . . . ”

        I get *tons* of ideas about trouble to throw my characters into, and better ways to get them out of it. 0:)

      2. I, too, often read the end, usually when I get suspicious or bored, but the premise and first few chapters were good enough it didn’t get dropped right off. One book was deadly boring and trite in the middle, but the ending was intriguing. I ended up reading the whole thing backwards, going “Oooh, good ending, how did that happen? I’ll go three chapters back and see…” and then three chapters before that, and three chapters before that…

        1. I, often follow your recipe, especially from reading slush. If the first little bit intrigues me, I will go read the end and then go back and fill in the middle. But, if its a bought book, then I’ll only go read the end if I think the author is going to pull a fast one and kill off a favorite character for no reason except to make me, the reader, feel sorry. Mostly sorry I got involved in the book. Red Shirts exist for a reason….

      3. Yep. I check endings. Well, not with cozies or something like that, but everything which might possibly go for surprise. And I also have a tendency to wait until I can read spoilers before deciding whether I want to see a movie. Total wimp. I hate surprises, or rather ‘surprises’, in stories because they hardly never are something which might increase my pleasure with the story, usually the opposite. And I don’t even wait until I get suspicious, it’s the normal pattern for me and has been for quite a long time.

  2. Dahlgren, for example can be covered by reading the first 3 chapters, 3 chapters at random in the middle, then the last 3. You get the whole book for 30% of the effort.

  3. The sixties made everyone think that entertainment had to have “redeeming value.”

    To me that means I enjoy reading it. Message fiction I can’t stand. I read fiction to have fun.

    Non-fiction is different. I read to find out what’s going on.

    I think the first time I realized something was seriously wrong was while reading a colonization novel, where the weak character didn’t die/go mad, but the leader did. This leaves the colony leaderless, and then they all die. Having read four hundred pages to get to “and they all died after going insane” made the book go against the wall with explosive force. There was no thought-provoking anything, unless you consider “life sucks and then you die” and “humanity doesn’t have what it takes to go to the stars” thought provoking.

    Yes, totally boring. There’s nothing wrong with putting your character through total and utter hell to get him/her to the denouement, but other than in horror, you don’t kill the protagonist. Or kill off the colony.

    Life sucks and then you die doesn’t make a real story.


    1. I always thought they missed a brilliant opportunity in “Enterprise”. When Archer became the first man to go through the transporter, he should have said, “Oh boy.”

  4. Thought of something I missed earlier. I’m a huge fan of Howard Philips Lovecraft and Karl Edward Wagner. Both writers had protagonists who failed miserably, but that was fine, because that was what you expected.

    Hell, I write Horror, and I’m fine with killing everyone except the monster. That’s an accepted outcome in horror.

    It isn’t an accepted outcome in Science Fiction or Fantasy.

    There’s a term – BUYERS REMORSE which I think covers the issue pretty well. When you buy a book, or you settle down to watch TV, you have certain expectations. When the book/TV Show/play/movie/video game/whatever does not meet those expectations you feel ripped off.

    My wife watches a lot of American TV. Me, well, I mostly can’t stand it, but to a certain extent it is hard to ignore when the damned box is on and I’m in the room. Take the most recent episode of CSI, which included some psycho going after Sarah in a weird and convoluted manner. Did it make sense? No. In fact it was pretty well insane. The writer’s twisted things so badly that I was cringing, even as I tried to ignore it while reading a history of a Special Operations attack in WW2.

    The show wasn’t really what CSI is about.

    Or consider Elementary (I caught one episode) as compared to Sherlock. Sherlock is a fantastic Holmesian romp. Elementary is a cutsie-pie disaster.

    You have to deliver what the customer (reader) expects. In horror, it’s death and madness. In Science Fiction it’s victory over oppression.

    Anything else results in an upset reader.


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