Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Surprise and Suspense

I was a little stumped about what to cover in a writing post today, and then I thought about something I've been considering in analyzing someone else's writing, and that's the issue of surprise and suspense.

Modern storytelling has become enamored of surprise. If a book, movie, or TV show has a big surprise in it, particularly a surprise twist, it will generally get a lot of praise for this. The surprise can elevate something that was pretty ho-hum. I suppose in our well-connected world full of spoilers and with us being fairly sophisticated consumers of story, so we know all the tropes, a genuine surprise that actually shocks us is rare and exciting.

But as a result of that, writers seem to be aiming for that surprise, with the idea that "surprise" is automatically the same as "good." You can write something pretty blah, and as long as there's a big surprise near the end, it will look like it's good. Also, anything that might keep something from being a surprise, like development, is to be avoided. Unfortunately, that robs us of something else that's valuable in storytelling: suspense.

Surprise is shock, while suspense is dread. There's an anecdote attributed to Alfred Hitchcock in which he said that if a family is eating at a picnic table and a bomb planted under the table suddenly goes off, that's surprise. If the audience sees the bomb and watches the picnic, dreading the bomb going off and desperately wanting the family to get out of there before it goes off, that's suspense. Each has its own place in storytelling. There are times when you need surprise, and there are times when you get more out of suspense. If everything has to be a surprise, you lose suspense because suspense requires knowing that there's a possibility of something happening.

The best surprises are actually set up. It just takes careful work to make sure all the clues are right there without them being so obvious that it ruins the surprise. One of the best ways is to give everything that happens two perfectly valid explanations. If you don't know the surprise twist, everything still makes sense in context. There's a reason for these things to have happened. After the surprise is revealed, you can see that there was a second reason for these things to happen, and they all paved the way toward the surprise. My favorite example of this might be in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. On the surface, it appears to be a "bloom where you're planted" story about an innocent man sent to prison on false charges who finds ways of coping with this new life that not only make it possible for him to survive and even thrive, but also help his fellow inmates improve their lot. And then -- SPOILER -- we learn that the whole time, all of this heartwarming stuff he was doing was actually a cover for a methodical escape plan that required years of patient work to carry off.

Everything he did along the way made sense as something a man trying to cope with his circumstances might do, but once we learned what was going on, we could see where it also helped him cover up his real activities. I think another key here is that the story still would have worked without the surprise. If it was just about the "bloom where you're planted" theme, it would have been a nice movie. The twist elevates it into something more complex, and it becomes a totally different movie the next time you watch it because you can see both stories playing out. The response to the surprise is "Oh, of course!"

On the other hand, even if you achieve surprise, your surprise fails if your audience looks back at the story and goes "huh?" because there's nothing to ground the surprise or pave the way for it. It also fails if the only good thing about the story is the surprise twist because the surprise only works the first time. That keeps your story from having re-read potential, and if you become known for your big twists, that means people will be expecting them and you lose the element of total surprise in future stories. A surprise can also be negative if it takes things in a direction the audience doesn't like. We generally don't want to find out that the hero we've come to care about was really the villain all along. We don't expect the hero to be helpless in the final confrontation while some random person saves the day, so while that happening would be a surprise, it would be a very unsatisfying story. That kind of twist requires some really clever writing and characterization to be palatable.

And then there's suspense. You need to decide if what's most valuable to your story is that sense of shock or if it would be better to build a sense of dread so that we know something big is coming. In prose, you have to do this with point of view, so that the audience knows something because of what one character discovered that the other character doesn't know yet. We don't have the benefit of the camera being able to show the audience things that none of the characters can see. You can also combine surprise and suspense if the outcome isn't what you were dreading. The bomb under the picnic table might just send a spray of confetti to kick off a surprise party rather than killing everyone. The monster we see lurking at the end of the alley might be there to help a character escape from the other monster we didn't know was in hot pursuit.

Satisfying readers requires a delicate balance of satisfying expectations and bringing surprises.

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