Use surprise in your story, but realistically

Last time, I noted that stories about characters who never fail can become boring. One of the ways to keep things interesting—in addition to giving your characters the occasional setback—is with unexpected plot turns. Hence this checklist item:

The plot contains elements of surprise.

On the one hand, readers, especially of mysteries, enjoy figuring out the story and predicting the ending. But few readers enjoy books in which they can predict everything. When a critique partner or editor calls your story “predictable,” that’s not a compliment.

reading book surprise suspense plot twist
Photo by Piotr Bizior

Every plot point doesn’t have to be a major Sixth Sense-style twist that turns your storyworld inside-out. But it is beneficial to make the turning points of your plot pivot in unexpected ways.

For example, in romance novels, it is quite common for the girl to fall in love with the fellow who rescues her. Yet in Emma, after Harriet is rescued by Frank, although Emma assumes that Harriet has fallen in love with him, Harriet reveals she is actually in love with Mr. Knightly. This is a surprise for the reader, as the favor Mr. Knightly had done Harriet was so small by comparison. And Emma is surprised by the degree of her own jealousy.

That said, however, we must issue a caution:

Events are plausible.

Surprises are one thing. Impossibilities and implausibilities are another.

Whatever happens to your characters, it needs to be in keeping with their character, their motivation, and their storyworld. A shy, soft-spoken office clerk is not going to suddenly tell off her boss, quit her job, and find instant success as a rock star. Mainly because no one finds instant success as a rock star. However, if you establish that she keeps quiet at work because she’s been told to keep her head down but is secretly boiling inside, and if you establish that she’s been moonlighting for years as the lead singer in a local bar band, you’re on your way. The rock star thing will still be a stretch, though.

Even in a fantasy storyworld, you have to establish what sorts of remarkable things are normal for that world. That means laying the foundation early for anything extraordinary that will come later.

In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, we see Ben Kenobi’s subtle Jedi mind trick early on, then he teaches Luke about the Force, and then at the end Luke uses the Force to destroy the Death Star. We also hear Luke brag on his piloting skills in a couple of places. So when he climbs into that X-wing, we believe he can do what he does. If a farm kid with no piloting experience and no special training had pulled off the same feat, it would be implausible.

Writers are often cautioned to avoid the deus ex machina—the god in the machine—using supernatural forces to solve all the story problems in one go. Even on a TV show like Touched by an Angel, in which miracles were very much part of the storyworld, the final resolution of the plot usually hinged on human, rather than divine, action. That’s just because a story in which God fixes everything in spite of everyone isn’t as satisfying as a story in which people solve problems, even if they do it with God’s help.

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