Surprise—and betrayal

This entry is part 4 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

We haven’t touched on surprise too much, despite it being in the title of our series. There are two reasons I included it: the difference (or delicate balance) between suspense and surprise, and the fact that surprises can be used to create tension and suspense. But surprises can also be done very, very badly.

Most of the time, surprises shouldn’t come out of left field from the other side of the Green Monster. As writers, it can be very gratifying to pull one over on your readers. But it’s even more gratifying if you’ve surprised them despite the foreshadowing and clues you’ve planted throughout your story. Without something the reader can go back through and identify as a clue (“Oh, man, I should have seen it coming!”), they’re likely to feel betrayed.

The clues and foreshadowing can be a great tool to build an amorphous suspense. If you keep them vague but strong, that sense of foreboding will carry through your work, pulling the readers with it—and they’ll still be stunned when you pull off the big reveal.

But I think the worst kind of surprise is when we base a surprise on something the point of view character already knows but hasn’t told the reader. To me, that’s basically lying—leading the reader to believe that we’ll all be together and we’ll tell the reader everything, but holding back the one thing that our character would know or think or realize that would make the experience complete for the reader.

I don’t mean that we have to spell out everything the character knows the exact second he or she knows it—or have the characters spill their guts to one another. But if the main character has known the truth all along—or they came into the story knowing some arcane fact that’s going to solve the case—that’s the kind of surprise that’s going to ring false to a reader unless it’s supposed to be the point of the whole story (and even then . . . ouch).

So how much foreshadowing is enough? It depends on how big the surprise is—and how central it is to the plot. (Helpful, I know.)

What do you think? How have surprises you’ve read (or written) fallen flat?

Photo by Benson Kua

Series NavigationSuspense fix: Raise the stakesThe source of tension, suspense and surprise

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3 thoughts on “Surprise—and betrayal”

  1. @Andrew—you’re killing me.

    @Deb—Hm… that’s a tough one. Maybe get new CPs? 😉

    I don’t think a reader has to see a surprise coming (which is why I changed it from “from out of left field” to “from over the Green Monster”). But I think that once the surprise is sprung, they should be able to remember (ideally) or go back and find the clues you’ve been planted along the way.

    Maybe I’ll address this tomorrow.

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