I was out of town last week when I had a writing post scheduled, so I’m catching up this week.
I’ve written in the past about the difference between surprise and suspense in writing — the times you want to shock your audience and the times you want your audience to know what’s coming so they have time to dread it. But although we worry about spoilers and ruining the surprise, there are times when it may be bad to surprise your readers.
One case is when there are genre expectations. It would be a big surprise if a romance novel didn’t end with a couple getting together or a mystery novel didn’t reveal the identity of the killer, but most readers wouldn’t be pleasantly surprised. You might be able to get away with that in literary fiction, where you can use those genre expectations to create something different, but if your book is shelved in those genres, that kind of surprise would be a bad thing. Romance readers want the couple to get together. Mystery readers want the mystery to be solved. The big question in romance is how they get together and the emotional journey the characters take. The big question in mystery is who the killer is, and readers don’t even always mind if they figure it out before it’s revealed, as long as it’s still a bit of an intellectual challenge.
Another case of a bad surprise is when the surprise isn’t properly set up. It’s easy to surprise your audience if something just falls out of the sky, without any setup to indicate that things falling from the sky is a possibility. When I see writing like that, it reminds me of a mystery-themed party I once went to. It was a big banquet at a hotel, and each table had paper and pencils to keep track of clues, as well as table decor that looked like it might contain clues. Every so often, the emcee came out and told us about some new development. We were diligently taking notes and trying to piece it all together, but when they announced the “solution,” it was some random thing that had absolutely nothing to do with what had been announced. It turned out that it was all a joke, and the solution was the punchline. I guess they thought it made for a good icebreaker, but it was absolutely impossible for anyone to have solved the mystery. You may surprise readers by doing that sort of thing, but most of them will be angry that you didn’t play fair. The solution needs to have been set up properly so that you can look back at the story and see the clues. The trick is to hide the clues in plain sight alongside other clues and to give each clue multiple layers of meaning, so that there’s another reason for it not entirely connected to the solution. One of the better examples of this is the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Everything that happens in the story makes sense in that context — and then there’s a big twist. After the twist is revealed, we see that everything we saw before also had an entirely different reason behind it. Without the twist, the story still makes sense and would have been a good story. The twist changes everything, but it still makes total sense. The second time you see that movie, knowing the twist, it’s an entirely different film.
On the other hand, if you set something up, you need to use it. There’s the old trope of Chekhov’s Gun — that if there’s a gun on the mantel in Act One, it needs to be fired by the end of Act Three (or something to that effect). If you bother to set things up, they need to go somewhere or readers will be annoyed. It may not go where you expect, or may not be directly related to the main plot, but something really should come of it. The more you draw attention to it, the more important it is that you go somewhere with it. If you can cut a whole scene or other story element without having any impact on the plot because that thing really makes no difference, then don’t put it in there to begin with. This applies to pointless side trips, character backstories, desperate messages, and quest items. Even if it’s a red herring, it needs to matter and be relevant in some other way.
Then there are the things that the audience wants to happen. It may not be a huge surprise when these things happen, but the audience is usually okay with that because they’d be disappointed if it didn’t work out that way. Readers of genre fiction generally want to see the couple get together, the villain defeated, the battle won by the good guys, the bad person get a comeuppance, the underdog rise to the occasion. You can keep in some element of surprise by allowing this to happen in an unexpected way, but if you don’t give readers what they’re hoping for, you need to give them something they’ll like even better. Sometimes tropes exist for a reason, and that’s because these are things we enjoy seeing. You can twist them to some degree, but twist them too far or undermine them, and the result is an unsatisfying story.
Finding the balance between surprise and satisfaction is an ongoing struggle for writers that becomes more difficult as readers become more sophisticated consumers of stories. But it’s worth it to put in the work to find a way to meet expectations while keeping things fresh.