The Element of Surprise

What does the element of surprise mean? How can writers add surprising plot twists and unexpected outcomes into their stories?

The importance of surprising your readers should never be forgotten by any aspiring writer. In fact, it should always be considered a vital part of a storyteller’s toolkit. By seeking to confound your audience with plot twists, subverting the reader’s expectations with ‘the element of surprise’ can often allow you to heighten dramatic tension in your story, add suspense, or introduce humour.

To understand how you can use it, we should start with a simple definition: the element of surprise is best described as the occurrence of anything in your story which is deemed by the reader to be unexpected. There are many subtle ways to achieve this—from character interplay and dialogue, all the way to the actual detailing of events within the story—but one of the most significant from a storytelling perspective is known as peripeteia.

Peripeteia—meaning ‘to fall around’ or ‘to change suddenly’—was defined by Aristotle as describing “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” In other words, it is a means of presenting the reader with a plot device which completely defies a reader’s expectations. That’s the essence of what the element of surprise tends to consist of in works of literature.

There are, however, many ways writers can achieve this, through the use of plot points for example, so here’s a handful to give you some thought-starters.

1. Identity

Let’s say there is a plot twist regarding the identity of one of your characters, such as a character not turning out to be who they appear to be, for example. Perhaps they are posing as someone else (as seen in Twelfth Night), or maybe they are thinking one way through prose, but behaving another way through dialogue, deceiving themselves more than anyone else. It should also be said that the literary technique of the unreliable narrator—exposing before the reader a gulf between what is said and what is actually done—can also have surprising consequences on how the reader interprets the story through the manner in which the narrator comes across.

Alternatively, there could even be the discovery that someone is not who they say they are at all; an unmasking, of sorts, culminating in them perhaps unwittingly revealing their true identity. A character could end up being a completely different person altogether or, depending on your genre, even a shapeshifting monster. Any reasonable person would say this constitutes a surprise.

2. Motive

A sudden or gradual shift in motive can also fall under the element of surprise. A character’s motivation could either be revealed as an act of deception, or maybe even the opposite way round. For example, if a male character is following a woman home, he may be suspected of being a stalker, but when it’s revealed that the woman dropped her purse and he is trying to return it to her, the reader develops a greater understanding of that character’s true nature as a result.

Ultimately, motive is about how the character’s inner desires face up to the reality of cause and effect, with any concurrent confusion which comes along when events in your story transpire and affect your character’s state of being. The key aspect here is that motive is usually psychological, so if a reader’s initial assumptions are flouted by a reversal in how the reader eventually interprets a character’s actions—whether they be for good or ill—this can instil a sense of surprise.

3. Perception

The idea of perception being used to surprise your reader is built on the idea that the world as we perceive it is not as it initially appears to be. Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly taps into a sense of drug-induced paranoia in its main character Bob Arctor, leading the reader to distrust whether he genuinely is an undercover police agent, as he claims to be, or whether his paranoid conspiracy theories and psycho-active delusions are all just a product of his imagination.

Any story where a character’s reality is revealed to be a fabrication, or conceit, will also fall under this descriptor. As a result, if your story is about your character coming to terms with the world as it is, rather than what they perceive it to be, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, then the element of surprise should present itself rather naturally.

4. Misfortune

As opposed to the psychological nature of motive, an act of misfortune is built on a physical occurrence of a surprising event, something which happens totally beyond your character’s control, but perhaps as an indirect result of their actions. Maybe it’s an accident, or perhaps it’s due to incompetence on their part, but either way misfortune should hinder your character’s journey and place them at a crossroads.

An act of misfortune can be a plot point which completely changes your story’s direction, diverting the reader away from how we initially perceive your character’s arc progressing by surprising them with a sudden intervention, (for example, a high-flying businessman we expect to get promoted could be fired after the IT department raise some red flags regarding his internet search history). Whereas once the reader had one interpretation of the character, the astute businessman, they now have another, a web-surfing pervert, all thanks to an act of misfortune designed to surprise the reader and put them on the back foot.

5. Betrayal

The element of surprise can also take the form of betrayal of some kind. A story which sees a character’s achievement denied, a moment of glory stolen, or the goal they’ve been striving towards debased by another’s malevolence are the most obvious means of achieving this. This could take the form of a heist novel in which a gang of thieves work together to rob a bank, only to find that the black sheep of their gang makes off with the loot the moment they go on the run. Again, this provides an instance where the reader has their expectations built up, only to have them obliterated by a sudden turning point which keeps your story interesting.

Most often, acts of betrayal are due to the actions of another character, rather than mere happenstance, so it’s important to ensure betrayal is committed by someone the reader least expects for maximum impact. If done well, the reaction of your character(s) to being betrayed can invoke the very same sense of surprise in your readers.

 

There are other, more incidental means of invoking surprise which are less reliant on plot points, through what I would call subversive affectation. For instance, if a character does not think, speak or behave in ways which readers deem to be acceptable, then this also contains the element of surprise. You see this a lot in transgressive fiction, such as in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting where the drug-addicted characters come across as alarmingly worldly and wise for a bunch of heroin addicts. Even the character of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is presented by author Bret Easton Ellis as committing surprisingly violent acts as a metaphorical embodiment of the cut-throat ideals of the late-1980s Yuppie classes.

The casual use of swear words can upend formalities and shock the reader, in the same way that absurdist gags or observations (à la Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) can prove bewildering enough to conjure the element of surprise. Essentially, anything which the reader does not expect to happen, or kicks against any preconceived sense of normalcy one would anticipate based on how your story unfolds, can rely on the element of surprise. The most difficult part is ensuring your stories prove to be genuinely surprising for your reader, and don’t just regurgitate tired clichés or lazy tropes. Succeeding at this, however, is something that writers cannot be taught how to do; unfortunately, it can only be learnt and surmounted through practice.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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