Lesson #72: Elements of Surprise, Mystery, and Suspense

Last October, I was in New York City. I won a trip for two to The Big Apple and, after a little arm twisting, convinced my husband to go with me. We stayed in a hotel near Times Square and went through that famous triangle of real estate several times in our four days. It’s an overwhelming mess of lights, noise, and shock value, all of it aimed at grabbing attention. When there’s so much stimulation for the senses to process, it takes a lot to stand out.

But that’s exactly what a good story must do—stand out amongst the plethora of choices from which readers may choose.

“Nothing penetrates your brain unless it surprises or intrigues you in some way.” I forget where I heard this statement, and I might not be quoting it correctly, but it is a truth. Some of us writerly types might even call it a truth universally acknowledged. Every story in every genre must include some level of intrigue to keep readers engaged.

Okay. We all agree on that. But now what?

Before I answer that question, I want to relate something I shared with a friend a few days ago. She’s a closet writer who hasn’t shown her work to anyone, not even her husband. Kim was like that. A friend found a manuscript while helping the Woodhouse family move and threatened to beat Kim over the head if she didn’t submit her work to a publisher. I’m not sure what kept Kim silent, but my friend here didn’t want to anyone to see her writing because, right now, she enjoys it. She didn’t want to hear that she was “no good.” I told her—and this is what I want all of you to hear loud and clear—that writing is a learned skill. There aren’t people who have “it” and others who don’t. It’s not like sports where you have to be a certain height or body type to have a shot at the big time. Writing is 95% a learned skill and 5% the love of reading.

With that in mind, let’s tackle surprise, mystery, and suspense because this is the area where most people feel you either have “it” or you don’t. To which I say, “Nonsense.”

The basic thing to understand about these story elements is that you must lay a groundwork of expectations, play off what a normal person would assume to be an underlying truth, and then twist it. That’s why we call it a plot twist.

For example, you start a scene with a mother and father getting the news from police officers that their son has been killed. They break down into tears

What are some things readers might assume are true? List them. As many as you can think of. And then decide how unexpected it would be if you made them false.

The parents are married. They love their son. They were shocked by the news. Their tears are genuine. Their tears are of grief. They don’t know the police officers. They will do whatever they can to help the police find their son’s killer. They’ve got a good enough relationship with their son to know who might want him dead. Their son is male.

How’d that last one catch you? By surprise?

Exactly. Surprise, mystery, and suspense are all built on turning an assumption on its head, and the more deeply held the assumption, the more shocking the twist. As you plot out a story, look for ways to turn things upside down. Ignore the first impulse you have, ignore the second one, the third, and probably even the fourth. When you get down to the fifth possible way the story could go, you’re flirting with a good plot twist. To make sure it’s one you want to take home to Mama and marry, you have to be sure the plot twist is a good match for your character. For example, if your hero is a fifty-nine year old man with osteoporosis, chances are he’s not going to jump out of an airplane just because you, as an author, decide it would be a really surprising thing for him to do. I’m not saying you can’t have him do it, but you’d better give him a character, backstory, and sufficient motivation to make that work. The balance—the real trick of all of this—is making a jump like this both believable and surprising at the same time.

As an example, let’s take “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starring Ben Stiller. In that story, Walter is as passive and safe as a man can get. He doesn’t do anything without weighing the risks, and it has paralyzed him. However, he used to go on outdoor adventures with his father. When he takes his big leap of faith—in this case a literal one into a helicopter—it’s surprising because it goes against everything we’ve seen of him up to that point. It’s believable, though, because his motivation is strong and he has some background with adventure.

Surprising yet believable. Difficult but not impossible to achieve as long as you understand you start by figuring out underlying assumptions which you then manipulate.

Before I sign off for this lesson, I want to talk about the difference between surprise, mystery, and suspense in writing terms. Let’s start with the last two as they have some fairly straightforward genre rules.

A mystery starts with a crime—often a dead body—which then needs to be solved. The author’s challenge is to lead readers away from the real culprit with a variety of “red herrings” which are not so obvious the reader says to himself, “It can’t be that person because the author is making too much of him,” and that, when the real culprit is revealed, it’s believable. When the reader goes back and looks for the clues, he sees that they were there all along but he assumed they meant something different.

A suspense follows three paths: 1) the hero or someone/something he cares about deeply is in mortal danger; 2) the hero is trying to prove he’s innocent of something; 3) or the hero is trying to make sure the person who did something wrong is brought to justice. Often, all three of these are at work in a suspense novel. The author’s job here is to make sure the villain is just a hair smarter than the hero, true to his own moral code or sufficiently motivated to do his evil deeds, and that catching him takes everything the hero’s got. We always assume the villain is bad through and through, but the best villains have a very righteous motivation (think Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn in “Star Trek Into the Darkness”—a title which really needs better punctuation—who is motivated by the desire save his crew.)

Surprise, however, isn’t a genre. It’s something that must weave through every story in various ways.

Surprise comes in many forms. It’s a snarky comment, a play on words, an unusual description or metaphor, a laugh-out-loud joke, or a moral lesson told in a new way. It’s anything that makes our brain go, “Hey…I haven’t seen that one before,” or “Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” We often call this a “fresh” description. (Of the four of us, I think Darcie is the one who does this the best. Check out her latest release, “Toss,” or its prequel, “Spin,” to see what I mean.)

Surprise is the opposite of cliché, but you can often use a cliché to create a surprise. For example, Elle in “Legally Blond.” She’s every blond girl cliché wrapped into one character. Her journey is to realize she’s more than just the cliché. Her final test takes one of those clichés and flips in on its head—again, literally. She’s in the courtroom and she’s faltering. Just when you think she’s going to fall apart and prove that she can’t handle the pressure of being smart, Elle catches the witness in her lie because, as a connoisseur of beauty products (the cliché), Elle knows that you can’t get your perm wet right away or you’ll lose the curl. Since the witness still has her curls, she couldn’t have been in the shower when her father was killed. Everyone in the courtroom is surprised—as are we—that such a “blond girl” bit of knowledge saves the day.

The next time something catches you as surprising or intriguing, take time to dig into why. The more you understand how others create it in their writing, the more you will be able to replicate it in your own.

With pen to paper,



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