Today, we are talking about the element of surprise and the role it can play in your story. Surprise, in the form of shock, betrayal, deceit, twists, turns and misdirection, can provide a solid foundation of dramatic conflict. Let me take a moment to clarify that these elements alone do not make a good story though (you need a base of things like great characters, dialogue, plot, voice, style and prose, otherwise you will find yourself with a very hollow page turner that people will eventually stop turning the pages of), but when used right, it can enhance your story, especially within the context of a narrative that thrives on mystery and suspense.
So, how do you write great twists? Well, great twists start with great preparation. The true mark of lazy writing is pulling something out of thin air and then brandishing it as a moment of genuine shock. There is no preparation to that. Suddenly making the janitor who has been lingering quietly in the background for the first two hundred pages of your thriller does not make you Michael Connelly. Effective moments of surprise are achieved because the author worked very hard to set them up and execute them at the opportune time. Whenever the reader reaches these ‘deus ex machina’ moments, they should be able to go back through the story and find the clues that were laid out for them to discover. Then and only then will they have an actual sense that, yes, this was planned and executed in a clever manner.
The problem is that far too many stories see their characters sidestep out of plausible or relatable behavior just to shock the audience. These are the moments that ultimately feel cheap, forced and unearned. Allow me to present a counter example to this pitfall by jumping outside of literary prose and citing a screenplay. The screenplay for The Usual Suspects still holds as a prime example of a story that pulled off a great twist (Since the movie is from 1995, I’m going to assume people have seen it and if not, don’t mind a 17-year-old movie being spoiled). Because we are given a temporarily limited perspective in the film, that of narrator Verbal Kint, we are led to believe what he is saying is true because we don’t see anything untrustworthy about him beyond his status as a low level criminal. But when it is later revealed that the villain of the story, Keyser Soze, has been posing as the crippled and helpless Verbal Kint, we are genuinely shocked.
Is this revelation totally out of left field? A bit. Does it hold up upon further examination though? Yes. In fact, it holds up fairly well. Who was the only one to survive the previous night’s massacre? Verbal Kint. Who is the only living witness to have seen the mythical Keyser Soze? Verbal Kint. It has always been there since the beginning that we should have suspected Kint, but we are lulled into a state of disbelief by his innocent appearance and believable nature. This is a credit to Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay. He did a phenomenal job of using subtle misdirection and great characterization to get us to ignore what was always right in front of us. This is why the script still holds up today. It was layered well and showcases McQuarrie’s ability to set up a complex story and execute it in a remarkably clever way without feeling like he was cheating the audience.
In my book, ‘The Exiles of the New World’, there are such ‘deus ex machina’ moments, but I did put a lot of time into their preparation in the hope that the audience would see that they were part of a long-term plan. Does that automatically mean they work? No, not necessarily. That decision is up to the reader, not the writer. But if you’ve prepared an effective trail of breadcrumbs that can be retraced, the readers will generally find it to be a much more fulfilling experience when they come upon a particular twist or turn in your story. Just remember, don’t let your characters down and betray them for a cheap thrill. It won’t improve your story in the end.
A graduate of DePaul University, Conor studied both English and Film while at school. He has worked as a video editor and copywriter, contributing to companies, magazines and websites across the country.
Although he primarily writes science fiction from his home in Chicago, he is always contemplating punching out the rest of his stories on a typewriter in a small cottage hidden in the Irish countryside.
The Exiles of the New World is Conor’s first novel.
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