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The Importance of Throwing Our Readers for a Loop

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I think I'm one of those people built with an internal "surprise radar." I can sense a surprise coming, spot the clues, and figure out what's going on without my family realizing I've discovered the "big surprise."

It's pretty tough to get anything past me in real life. I can probably count on one hand the times I've been truly surprised.

Not only is it difficult for my kids or husband to get much past me, I don't really like surprises all that much. I'm not spontaneous. In fact, I'm too much of a planner, too logical, and too practical. I like my ducks in a row. Surprises usually drive me nuts.

Except . . . of course when they're in fiction.

But usually surprises in fiction are as rare as surprises in real life. I suppose that's why I absolutely adore when I don't see something coming in a book, and it hits me square in the face.

That happened to me recently when I was reading The Fault in Our Stars, a bestselling YA that deals with teenage cancer, death, and grief. While I'm not normally drawn to reading books like that, my daughter and her friends were talking about. So I wanted to find out why the book was so popular.

After finishing the book, I can see that there are a lot of reasons the book has been successful. It's well written, engaging, and VERY heart-wrenching.

One technique I noticed in The Fault in Our Stars that I particularly liked was the author's ability to take me (the virtually un-surprisable) by surprise. He threw in a couple of unexpected plot twists (which I won't divulge in an effort not to spoil the book).

Those unexpected loops got me thinking about how we as writers often overlook the potential of adding in the unexpected.

Readers lament about plots and characters being predictable. But adding fresh spins and unique story-lines is usually one of the hardest things for writers to do (especially because it seems like everything has already been done).

But there are essentially two major areas where we can focus on adding the unexpected:

1. An unexpected loop in the plot. 

Our stories ought to put readers on a roller coaster ride, with the usual ups and downs, twists and turns. But then once in a while, we need to throw them into a loop. We need to turn them upside down. We need to change things when they least expect it, usually right when they're getting comfortable with the ride the way it's going. 

Of course, we don't want to add in something isolated and unrelated to the plot simply for the sake of generating more drama. In fact, I'd go as so far to say, that the new loop must be integral to the plot. We want the reader in hindsight to be able to see the subtle clues we planted that warned them about the coming loop.

Perhaps we make the reader think danger will hit one person, but then we shift it to another. Or maybe the good thing our character is striving after turns out to be life-threatening instead. We flip the situation into reverse, doing the opposite of what the reader expects.

2. An unexpected character reaction (behavior or thoughts). 

Obviously unexpected plot changes happen on a macro-level. But we can add the unexpected on a micro-level too. One way to accomplish this is to have our characters react either physically or internally in a way that seems inappropriate to the situation.

We can have the hero act-out-character, in a way that surprises him at the same time it surprises the reader. Laughter during a somber moment. Anger when none is warranted. Forgiveness when it's not deserved.

Perhaps the uncharacteristic reaction is part his character arc growth. Perhaps it brings out the need for growth. Or perhaps it is even a setback in the growth he's already accomplished.

The important thing is that we don't set up such reactions in a vacuum, but that we make them integral to the character that's already been developing. Even if we initially surprise our readers, they eventually can see how the reaction fits the character that they're getting to know.

My summary: One way to brainstorm for loops is to think of three normal plot occurrences or three normal character reactions. Then write down the exact opposite of those things. Pick one and try to weave it into the story somewhere.

While we don't want to make our readers dizzy with too many loops, they will appreciate when we can take them by surprise every once in a while.

How about you? Are you easy to surprise in real life? How often does a book you're reading take you by surprise?

8 comments:

  1. I'm like you, I'm not too huge into surprises normally, and honestly, my hubby isn't one who is into surprising people, LOL, so it's rare!

    I LOVE surprises in fiction though. They are the BEST when well doneI It doesn't happen super often... but it's great when done and believable. You're right though, a surprise that is throw in just for kicks and doesn't make sense to the plot adds a measure of confusion and annoyance rather than something fun.

    One way we differ is that I don't plot my books, I write as I go. Which is fun, because sometimes the plot surprises ME as I'm going! LOL

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  2. Jody, I'm so much like you in that I hate surprises and it is very hard to actually surprise me because I'm usually quite in tune with what is going on around me. I'm logical, practical, and want everything planned. My husband is not. He often tells me, "you're so logical, it's exhausting."

    I like surprises in fiction but once again it doesn't happen very often as I usual am able to predict what is coming. But not every surprise is good. I recently read a book where the author killed off the dog in the end. As a lover of animals, this was a complete no no in my opinion. While it may have fit with the plot, it left a bad taste in my mouth and distracted me from the point of the story.

    Then again, I'm sure not every reader is as sensitive to animals dying as I am so it may work for some.

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  3. Thanks! I'm like you always seeing what's coming. Love it when I don't as long as it fits and still ends well. You've really got me thinking about my WIP and how I can change it up a bit.

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  4. In real life, I don't like surprises either; I find comfort in my daily routine, because it's something that I can rely on. I like it when a story is unpredictable though, because I'm much more likely to get bored if I can already figure out what's going to happen beforehand.

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  5. Seems like we're all similar, in not liking real life surprises but liking them in our fiction.

    I drive my hubby crazy by picking holes in TV plots and predicting the endings. I like plot twists but I expect people to act in character. If they do things they wouldn't normally do -- things that aren't consistent with their personalities -- it feels contrived, so they better have a logical reason. You've made a good argument for doing more planning ahead... definitely a challenge to my seat-of-the-pants method of writing! :)

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  6. Hi Everyone!

    It's interesting that most of us don't like surprises in real life! LOL! I always say, I live vicariously through the lives of my characters in my stories! :-)

    I do think some planning needs to be involved to make plot loops believable. But on the other hand, as Krista said above, I also REALLY love it when I seem to stumble upon a new plot twist as I'm writing. It seems to come from out of nowhere and flips me as the writer around. Those creative flips are one of the best things about being a writer. Usually when they happen, however, they seem to flow out of the context of the story that's already developing and so they make sense. (And honestly, if they do throw things off, well, then there's always rewriting!) :-)

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  7. I LOVE surprises but seldom get them. I make surprise parties fro everyone but no one makes them for me. Maybe because they think I will catch on, I don't know. Nothing would make me happier than a good surprise. Having said that, I like surprises in books as well and do try to include a few in my children's books. I think all kids like surprises.

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  8. Hi, Jody! I am also hard to surprise. Hope you're doing well. Hope you are having a wonderful Easter. :)

    Andrea

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