How a reader handles surprise

[— Karen Myers —]

When I was in college (in the 70s) I visited the London Zoo in Regent’s Park during a summer vacation. They had a wonderful indoor nocturnal exhibit, all sorts of critters in dark terrariums who were awake during visitor hours because their normal schedule was reversed.

It was, not surprisingly, dark in there, so dark it was hard to read the labels. As I recall, there were reptiles, and bugs, and all sorts of things, but they hid in their foliage very well and half the time you couldn’t tell what was lurking in the greenery.

At the same time that I entered, a young father came in, carrying his toddler son up against his shoulder so he could see into the enclosures. The two of them followed directly behind me as we circulated along the edge of the exhibit.

I learned three things that day.

First, small children have a hard time trying to see something in a darkened terrarium. As far as the kid was concerned, he and his daddy were taking a walk in a funny dark place with lots of plants. Hints from his father didn’t help him (might not know enough words yet, I thought).

Then we came to the last exhibit, and I learned my second thing — the final terrarium housed bats. I know this because one of them introduced himself out of the darkness — precipitously, right up against the glass,

And then I learned my third thing. A pre-verbal toddler, startled by an unexpected face right out of hell, has a scream of absolute outrage that is unmistakable.

It wasn’t just the surprise. It didn’t even seem like fear, not really. No, it was downright existential, an expression of extreme disapproval that such a thing should exist in a well-ordered universe, a denial of all that is sane and just. The creature wasn’t just unexpected, it was monstrous; it was the manifestation of betrayal by a reality that he had trusted until now. His objection had a recognizable moral component.

And that’s part of what matters when you decide to shock your readers. Don’t just throw a surprise in to mix things up, unless your aim is comic relief. If you’re serious, then make it matter, make it meaningful. Make it shake the foundations of your readers’ beliefs, in the story and out of it.

Have you ever been surprised in some fundamental way? What was it, and how did it change you? Have you ever used it, in your writing?

23 thoughts on “How a reader handles surprise

  1. In the fanfic thing a character surprised me, and I spent pretty much the next seven or so short stories trying to lay in enough indications and foreshadowing so it wouldn’t drop in on the reader like a killer space flea from outer space.

    And when I got to the end I realized the character had been entirely too subtle, so I had to going back and adding in two more short stories where the reader could actually directly see the character plotting something. They never said what they were plotting, just that it had blown up in their faces.

    And now I realize in WIP, I needed to figure out how to effectively foreshadow, in a scifi setting, that one of the characters is a supernatural creature, before the reveal, so it’s not a complete shock to the audience.

    I don’t think pure behavior would work, because it would look very similar to the manic pixie dream girl trope, so despite it being driven by a completely different set of priorities, it wouldn’t work for foreshadowing.

    I may need to spend more time establishing the setting. The original introduction was that it was a strange forest that later turned out to be a huge scoured space habitat, but we aren’t starting from that point anymore. I think I need to find a way to go back and re-establish it so first impression is spooky forest, and only then the reader finds out it is in space?

    1. It’s a lot like trimming a square, just a fraction, to make it really straight. Then trimming it again, no that didn’t work, do it again, until the whole thing is some sort of weird octagon that suits you better.

      The reason I stopped on the current series-in-progress before writing book 3 from my outline notes isn’t that I had issues with the plot — I had issues with insufficient world-building specificity and detail to ground everything vividly enough in a reader’s imagination, and I’m just finishing that retro-fitting now (and it’s a lot better now, to my eye. Amazing how much difference a few discreet details makes.)

    2. It might be worth looking at classic horror/suspense novels, such as Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars wherein the narrator thinks he’s in a world without the supernatural, and the reader sees he isn’t. IMO, and all that – I’ve been part of too many conversations about stories wherein it turns out the participants can’t agree on essential facts. The ambiguous ending works a lot better in that book than the other one that, according to the notes accompanying my copy, was publisher imposed, not what the author really intended.

      1. my office mate just added, establish rules of the world, and then spend some times subtly indicating that they don’t apply to this character. The way FFVII did it with Sephiroth.

        1. I’m going to have to read that book.

          And ‘establish the rules then show how she breaks them’ would make for a good second act: “Who is the strange girl?” mystery plot.

          Which will be fun because she’s a deeply conflicted character who can chew the scenery when she gets going, and its mostly for camouflage.

          Have not actually played FF7, but maybe this is a good justification to go get the remakes? It’s educational!

          1. Don’t know much about the remake, except that it is doing different things. What i do know is that my kid found out the original was ported to the PC and started playing it, and has been remarking on how cleverly they dropped information in while making it look like anything from programmer error (it wasn’t) to character maturation. You might say it’s foreshadowing by anomaly, and what isn’t there not Checkov guns.

  2. Oh, yes – I had a narrative forming, and about 7/8ths finished, I was coming up on a plot development that I didn’t really look forward to writing – the death of a major character from tuberculosis. (It was already baked into the story arc, so I was stuck with that development.) Then a I had a wild thought – have it happen off-stage, as it were. And I spontaneously thought of something in that characters’ past what would account for it all – and let me vent on one of the awful disillusions in my own life over a certain romantic entanglement. My editor was horribly surprised by the new development, as she had really, really liked that character, and was very disappointed in him.

      1. I had a secondary teenage character in one of my books that became a sort of involuntary villain (out-of-control monster, but not her fault), that my heroine killed (they were both wizards and it was her duty).

        Years later, my husband still accuses me of having “killed Robin”, since he wanted me to make her a sidekick to the heroine instead.

  3. “Make it shake the foundations of your readersโ€™ beliefs, in the story and out of it.”

    This does seem to be the direction of the industry as a whole, shaking the foundational beliefs of the reader. I’ve seldom seen this done in a book and approved of it. I can’t really remember an instance where it was done and seemed right.

    I have seen times where the book got ripped in half and sent to the circular bin, accompanied by blue-tinged air. Much like the kid startled by the bat. ~:D

    1. I was thinking of ordinary human emotional foundations, not the disastrous woke lecture circuit. The former is a common human experience we can all empathize with, while the latter has nothing to do with human reality and suffers both from immoral aims and overweening power ambitions.

      1. I admit I read it the same way Phantom did. Honestly I don’t write to shake anyone’s emotional foundations either. Just… bring them along on the ride, however simple or dramatic that may be.

    2. You mean, like the time I was reading a book on the origins of the black death, and it was laying out trade patterns really well, right until we got to – and mind you we’re talking about the 1200’s – the bourgeoise’s quest for more capitalist power had a disproportionate impact on this region…

      Yep, that stinker went straight in the trash, in much the same manner of complaint, though more verbal, as the toddler. Any author that tries to foist Marxism on 1200’s Europe is an author so blind to the world outside their head that their research is irreparably tainted.

  4. Plenty of times I’ve been surprised. The last one that altered my fundamental responses to the world was when I was sitting at a cafe in a tiny town with friends, on a lazy weekend morning. One of them was reading a newspaper, and said, “Hey, you ever heard of a pilot named Marcus Paine?”

    I laughed. “Paine in the ass? What’s he up to now?” Knowing Marcus, I put down my coffee so I wouldn’t snort it with laughter instead of drinking it.

    The newspaper went still. “Um, he died at an airshow. Something went wrong, and he rode the plane down to make sure it wouldn’t hit the crowd.”

    …Ever since then, when somebody says “Do you know So-and-so?” I instead respond with a neutral “Yes”, and brace for the news.

    1. I’m sorry. BTW, had a similar. Walked up to the door as an ambulance was doing a slow roll away. Saw my boss and said “guess it wasn’t you, haha”. His face was like stone and he said “it was Mel”. My best co worker. I’ll always feel like an ass.

  5. Whenever I think about surprises in literature, I’m reminded of a quote I ran across on TVTropes:

    “It’s like if you call Dominos and order a large pepperoni pizza, and they deliver a newspaper. Yeah, it was a surprise, but it doesn’t leave you wanting to order from them again.”

    Surprises can be effective, but they can also be difficult to execute right. The difference between “Wow!” and “WTF was that !@#$#!” isn’t always clear from the creator’s perspective.

  6. The biggest shock I can recall while reading someone else’s work was when Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley knocked my socks off with the ending of Thunderbolts #1. Yes, it was a superhero comic book, but I had to go back and reread that last page several times (not just that last page, but the whole thing!) to make sure I understood what I read, it was that big a shock. Even now, 26 years later, I remember my feeling at that last page, and oh how I wish I could find something else to read that would make me feel like that series did that issue and for the next 11 that came out. Maybe I haven’t read enough “real” books, but I can’t think of anything else that I would put with it.

    I’ve done it twice. I killed a main character. I also did the reverse. The killing sort of feels… gratuitous at this point, but it’s done and it’s centrally important to the series and its sequel. The other I feel is a stroke of genius and I can’t believe I came up with it, but I am excited to see what others think if they ever read it.

    1. That was a marvelous page. Of course it was part of a series, so that was the Inciting Incident more than the Climax. . . .

      One thing about surprises is that they work better the earlier in the story they are. You can blindside the readers and the character with his Secret Legacy in the opening chapters.

  7. Dear authors, this is why you don’t throw random prn in an action adventure either. Or have Captain America work for Hydra. Thank you. A. Reader.

  8. Since the original example was negative– I’ll do one positive.

    I was absolutely startled when my now dear husband proposed to me.

    Especially since the day before his mother had tried to gently explain that he was really not the marrying kind. ๐Ÿ˜€

    The logic, in my mind, was that there was no way that somebody that awesome would want to be stuck with me for the rest of his life. (He, on the other hand, had similar skepticism about me saying yes… but figured it was worth a try, because he also knew I was greatly lacking in clues.)

    And I’m actually writing a scene where a lady offers to marry her friend, exactly because he doesn’t want to be married to someone who would expect it to be a good marriage. (loooong reasons I can’t explain ATM, doesn’t matter– would be a political match on his side, and *would* be a love-match on the part of the women they’re throwing at him)
    They’re currently arguing about which of them is being silly, since they both view the others’ obvious good points as far stronger than their own. ๐Ÿ˜€

    I’m pretty sure the offer will shock readers, which is why I’m trying to establish it as perfectly reasonable.

    ….if nothing else, it’s great practice.

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