I think that’s the finest compliment an author can get from a reader: I didn’t see that coming.
Surprising the reader is not easy. First, you have to give the reader a sense of where you’re heading – without being so predictable they stop reading – then pull the rug out from under them at a critical moment.
I was reminded of this when one of my CP’s, Krystalyn Drown, pointed out that in the latest chapter of my WIP, my protagonist jumped to some correct conclusions awfully easily. He made assumptions based on little evidence that turned out to be correct. And her comment made me think that my interests might be better served if the protag made assumptions that turned out to be wrong – especially if I let the reader think he was right, and then surprised them later.
A few years back, I was working on my short story, Necromancer, with Mike Katz, who was editing the story for an anthology. I needed to revise the ending, and Mike suggested two alternate ways to conclude the story — A and B. I decided to re-write Necromancer using ending B, after totally rejecting ending A. Pleased by the results, I emailed Mike the new draft only to have him send it right back. “That’s good,” he said. “Now, revise it again so that readers think you’re heading for ending A and then surprise them at the last minute with ending B.” My jaw dropped. It was brilliant. And I was rewarded when readers of the final version told me, again and again, “I didn’t see that coming.”
Have you pulled the rug out from under your readers lately?
BTW: That creepy guy in the picture is the cover image for Necromancer, and a cool side note to this story is that the set designers of the TV show 30 Rock purchased the rights from the artist to use it in the background set of an episode … only, they never did. Rats. But I have a copy hanging in my house, where it occasionally freaks out visitors and makes people think I’m into the occult. They didn’t see it coming!
That is a seriously cool cover. Too bad 30 didn’t use it. If they bought the rights, might it still show up in a future episode?
Re surprises: it IS tough to surprise readers, especially to do it genuinely, and not in a contrived manner. The hard part is to not leave readers feeling like they’ve been intentionally set up. When you can pull it off, it’s great–I think those are some of the most satisfying endings of all.
LOL, that picture would definitely freak me out if I saw it hanging in someone’s house!
I recently had an “I didn’t see that coming” moment when one of my betas was reading my WIP. It made me laugh because I thought it was obvious where things were going. I was very pleased by it!
I am always surprised when I surprise readers, because, since I’m the writer, it’s really obvious to me! So I never know when it’s going to work and when it’s not. But I love the technique with the alternate endings! That’s one way to make sure!
That cover is so cool and what an interesting story behind it. I’m trying to do this in some of my manuscripts, but it’s not easy. Practice, practice, practice, right?
I love this trick. I’ve never consciously tried it. I’m going to have to so that I can make sure the ending surprises the reader.
I know with my one wip I threw in some twists that few saw coming (though no one saw the double twist). And now with my edits, no one will see them coming. 🙂
Hah! That’s awesome.
And you’re absolutely right, nothing charms a reader quite like a surprise. I always try to work them in, but they never come out right until 3 or 4 major revisions.
And I swear I know that picture from somewhere … maybe just my creepy subconscious.
It makes me giddy that I inspired a blog post. =)
And I still love that idea of heading for ending A, but ending with B instead. It always bears repeating, because I, um, forget.
Great picture! Definitely not something one expects to see hanging in every household.
Surprising readers is big plus, but not necessarily easy to pull off. I guess that’s the art of good writing!
I’d like to believe I’ve pulled the rug a time or two, at least my CP’s and Beta readers have told me so. That’s kind of the cornerstone of mystery/suspense…always keep them guessing — incorrectly! 🙂
Love the picture. Can’t wait to see how you use this to make things more difficult 🙂
It depends. A surprise ending is fine IF the reader can think back to a few subtle hints throughout the story. Without that, then the “surprise” is simply “out of left field.” There has to be a reason why the ending is what it is. Poorly handled, a surprise ending is just bad writing.
Good writing should elicit: I should have seen that coming!
Interesting. My concern when people tell me they didn’t see something coming is that I’ve jumped the shark. Like everything with writing, it’s a fine line we have to walk.
I love the feeling of thinking I have figured out a book and then realizing I haven’t, and even better is when something surprises me so much I have to read the rest of the book right then to figure out what happened.
I love me some psych-outs. I can’t really think of any in my own writing (lame. I know.) One example I can think of is the Harry Potter where all throughout the story we think Syrus Black is the bad guy…
I imagine having that pic hanging does cause quite a stir. How delightful.
That would be an awesome compliment. That’s the goal. Deliver the end without screaming it midway through the read.
What a great post, and so totally true, especially where CPs are concerned. Because I know the story, I always think “wow, that was so obvious,” so when my CPs are suprised I know I’ve achieved something. And that is a super creepy image, but well up to the task of being the Necromancer :).
Yes, I love when I can surprise people. The book I’m editing now for the R&R has a couple of cliff hangers and I know that I got betas when they’d insist I send them Part 3 immediately (I did it in parts originally) because they never saw that happening.
But you’d better have good foreshadowing–even if it’s subtle (Rowling was fabulous at that). Otherwise your readers will be justifiably mad that you just threw the surprise ending in.
Very cool artwork!
Right now, Lenny is the only person who is reading my mg wip. I think I surprised him when he got to the chapter about the mermaid. 🙂
The predictability of a story is something that irks me when I read a novel. If I have it figured out by chapter three, I just spend the rest of the novel checking off boxes for the things I’d already guessed. I know it can hard though, especially as a writer, because there are so any tropes or things that are expected as part of genre fiction.
It’s always great to be able to surprise a reader, and that’s a great idea about how to lead up toward one ending and surprise them with the other…as long as ending #2 makes sense. 🙂
Oh, I need to think more like this. Like, “This is where this is going, but surprise!” It’s not how it’s going to go for sure.
Have you ever had anyone upset about the way it went? Like, it didn’t go the way they wanted…?
I understand what you mean when you say surprising your reader is a great accomplishment… and I think it’s the books that actually do succeed in surprising a reader that stick in the one’s mind.
Thanks for stopping by The Hiding Spot! I hope you find the time to read THIS IS A NOT A TEST! 🙂
That’s such a cool tip. Deliberately leading the reader somewhere and then twisting it. I love that 🙂