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!