Friday, March 6, 2015

Surprise Your Readers

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Happy Friday, all! I have some fun stuff to share in the coming weeks, including an author interview with one of my favorites and a contest to test your SHOWING skills. I'm very excited about both, but today, I'll be doing my best to answer a question that was posed on the blog a few weeks ago. Here the comment:


There is more than one way to interpret question number two up there: the unpredictable narrator. I'm not entirely sure whether Ana wants advice on an unpredictable narrator or an unreliable narrator which is a slightly different thing. I do think it will be valuable to discuss unreliable narrators, but let's save that for another time, okay?

Today, I'll address unpredictability as it relates to surprising your reader.


Unpredictable stories can be hard to come by sometimes. I'll read four or five books--wonderful, glorious--predictable books for every unpredictable one I read. That certainly doesn't mean they're bad, but if you're wanting to surprise your reader, there are some tried and true methods you can use.

Reveal information only as necessary. The first author that comes to mind here is Kate Morton. She writes these deeply researched Historicals that often span generations and she's found a formula that's made her stories very uniquely hers. She moves from one generation to another, through letters sometimes, and through memories in others. Back and forth she'll tell the story, crossing centuries, from one voice to another, until the entire tale has unfolded. But, she does it so seductively that it's not until those final chapters that the crux of it all has been unveiled. In this way, her unpredictability is painstakingly planned out. Guessing the ending is near impossible because she's withheld some crucial bit of information. The key if you will. There's no unlocking the truth without it and she holds it close until the perfect moment.

Another storyteller who does this brilliantly is M. Night Shyamalan. And he does it in an entirely different way. Think about the Sixth Sense. The storyteller knew something none of the rest of us knew. He didn't flat out lie to us, but he withheld crucial information until the time was absolutely ideal. And then all of our heads exploded.

Utilize red herrings. Another method that can be employed is the use of red herrings. A red herring is anything that distracts or misleads the reader. It's a plot point or a character or a bit of dialogue that leads the reader down a false trail mentally. It's used most often in mysteries--a suspect with motive and means and a shaky alibi maybe to distract you from the real culprit--but it can be creatively used in other genres. Think of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Lots of red herrings there. Who is the Half Blood Prince? Is it Harry? Is it Malfoy? Is it He Who Must Not Be Named? Red herrings can be a very useful way to distract your reader and pull off an unpredictable ending.

Throw a good liar into the mix. If your most dashing and easily trusted character is hiding something, or lying about something, you've spiced things up in a way that could flip your story on its head. If you can reveal his deception creatively, you may just surprise your readers. The best example of this I can think of is a book I'd hate to ruin for you all, so I'm going to leave it nameless. When a very well-respected, elderly detective is called in to solve a murder we trust him immediately. In fact, the whole town does. He's the detective after all and he acts accordingly. He tracks down suspects, reveals secrets, throws an entire town into turmoil and in the end, we find that he himself committed the murder. The whole story looks different through that lens. Depending on who this character is and how this strategy is employed, this is also a brilliant way to create an unreliable narrator. But, we'll discuss that more another time.

Let yourself be surprised. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. Or so says a writer pal of mine. I absolutely believe this . . . with disclaimers. During the drafting process, let your characters make a few choices. Let them surprise you with the things they're willing to do. If they want to blow something up, let them. If the fallout can't be managed, you may have to adjust, but that's what drafting is all about. Trying. Surprising yourself. Here's my disclaimer: when you reach the editing phase, you may need to smooth out these moments. You may need to go back and add hints of recklessness into your bomber's background, or you may decide the surprise fits as is. Either way, let yourself be surprised during these early phases. You'll thank yourself for it later.

Again, there is no one way to do this. There are many. I suggest reading and rereading as many unpredictable books as you can. Study how and why the author did what they did. Discuss the book with others. Get input. If you can master this, you'll take your writing to another level entirely.

How do you surprise your readers, friends? And can you suggest a few unpredictable books for those of us wanting to study them?

27 comments:

  1. How do I surprise me readers? Well, I've never really gotten that far. I'm in that stage when one jumps from beginnings to beginnings, never even getting halfway between a story. My current manuscript, The Assassin's Mercy, *will* see itself to the end, no matter what. It's a vow :).

    Thanks so much for answering questions, Mrs. Dittemore! I have another. I've been plagued with doubts on if my story is good. How do I know if my current book is worth it? I usually used to pants my book, but I decided to plot this one after a total mess up during the first chapters. I lost some of my fizz for the story that time, and want to make sure it's worth it before I jump in. Can you help?

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    1. It's worth it! I promise! Now, here's the thing. I have no idea if you're working on something publishable, but every bit of writing you do as a teen is WORTH IT! It will only make you better. To know if it has appeal with readers, you'll have to take a leap and ask some of your writer pals to read it for you. You could definitely look into critique groups as well. It's a scary thing sharing your work with others, but it's necessary at times. ALSO, you need to define "worth it" for yourself. Be clear. What are you hoping to accomplish? If you don't make it there, can you see the value in writing for yourself at this point in your career? Be very honest with yourself.

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    2. You know what? You're right, Mrs. Dittemore! Every bit of writing as a teen is worth it. As a matter of fact, I am part of a critique group, even though I've been a little afraid sharing my work. And yes, I CAN see the value of writing for myself. Thanks. Guess I was just being silly, huh.

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    3. We writers all get self-doubt sometimes :D.

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  2. Ooooh! Kewl post! I love surprising readers ... hehe. I find the best way to shock and surprise readers is best done in what I call a controlled situation. In the case of the detective, the reader was under the impression that the detective was trying to solve the murder, but in the end he had things "under control" because he already knew that information. When a narrator tricks you into thinking they are out of control, especially in 1st person, if they pull it off right, it can make a brilliant story. My favorite TV show pulls this off really well.

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    1. Absolutely, and in this case you're creating an unreliable narrator. A narrator that cannot be trusted. A tricky thing to pull of but very, very effective.

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  3. Almost anything by Mary Higgins Clark is pretty unpredictable. I've read almost all of her books and there were only two where I correctly guessed the end. I haven't yet completed a book, I'm about a quarter of the way through, so I have no idea how I might surprise my readers, if I do at all.
    I did have one question, (thanks for taking the time to answer our questions) I know you're supposed to show things more than you tell them, and that too much internal monologue is discouraged, but one of my main characters is mentally unstable, as well as a very private person. How should I go about showing his struggles? He's not exactly the kind of guy who's going to cry on anyone's shoulder, or even talk about what's going on. Any advice?

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    1. I LOVE internal monologue. I think there should be tons of it in a first draft. REMEMBER, you can cut later. While you're drafting feel free to write exactly what you're character is thinking. That internal stream of words will help you. Also, just an FYI, I know editors who turn away ms that don't have enough internal monologue, so be sure to balance the advice you get.

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  4. Thanks so much for answering my questions, Shannon! I think these are great tips, but I especially love the idea of throwing in an unpredictable liar in my book. I don't think that liar will be the narrator, but maybe it'll be a supporting character that seems like the victim, but actually turns out to be the villain. I agree that discovery is such an important process of the early drafts of a novel. For the first draft of my novel, I followed so many plot bunnies and plot twists. Now, however, I've made my novel less of a sci-fi adventure novel and more of a sci-fi mystery novel. I'll be completely rewriting it for the third draft, and since it's a mystery, it will benefit me more to do lots of plotting beforehand.

    As for unpredictable books, I suggest And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. I'd love to see everyone else's suggestions.

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    1. Great ideas! I'm a huge Agatha Christie fan. HUGE.

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    2. Thank you for asking this question Ana! This such a great help! :3

      And thank you so much for answer her question Shannon! Your post was great!

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  5. I don't surprise myself or readers nearly enough I think. I love reading books that make me question or throw me off guard, but I really haven't gotten the trick of it myself. Although in my finished first draft I had a selfish character I wanted to strangle for doing exactly what I didn't want without me realizing until a few chapters after the fact. Hopefully I can try out a few of your tips!

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    1. Good luck as you try new things! Remember, you don't have to tackle this sort of thing during your first draft. Sometimes you find ways to be shifty as your process moves forward.

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  6. Can you do a post on how long we should research and plot before beginning to actually write?

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    1. You know who is a genius when it comes to research and such? Stephanie. But, I'll tell you this, I don't think you should do a ton of research BEFORE you start anything. Do enough to get started if you're writing the kind of story where research is necessary. As you write, you may decide to cut things or change things or switch centuries altogether and if you've invested TOO much time in research, those cuts are going to be all the more painful. If you need to stop writing and research a bit here and there, do it, but save the big stuff for when you've crafted the story.

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  7. lol, the "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." is one I can relate to. My mom reads my chapters as I write them, so I know how the story is going only about a chapter ahead of her. She has come up to me before and been like, "What!? I did not know you were going there." Then I'll just be like, "Neither did I."

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    1. It's fun, right? My stories surprise me constantly.

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    2. Yes! That is indeed the fun, all the unexpected things that will happen. :) Though I will admit I had a moment in my current fantasy draft when I nearly put my head in my hands while I moaned to my sister, "Another new person just showed up" because I knew it was going to change things and what in the world was I going to do? But it added a new twist to the story, and I am glad he came. :)

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  8. Thanks for the post, it's really good. One author I've noticed who is really good at making it hard to guess who did what is Brandilyn Collins. Thanks again for the post!

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  9. My current book has the unpredictable liar!

    Could you not suppose your reader by doing exactly what they think would be just too obvious? I mean, sometimes you expect something not to happen because you are searching for a surprise. Then you'd be surprises by no being surprised, lol, I don't know :)

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  10. Great post! I love surprising, unpredictable books! Unless the surprise is along the lines of Jo refusing Laurie in "Little Women". That greatly peeved my upper elementary school self. But then again, I still love "Little Women"...

    Something that makes a twist hard for me to expect is that it played on an element of predictability, or if there are other elements of predictability present. If the whole novel is full of strange occurrences, then a Big Shocking Reveal sorta seems inevitable. If I think I know exactly where a book is going/what its characters are like, then THAT is when I'll be floored when I'm wrong, especially if I was right about a lot of other things in the book. Playing with tropes is cool, too. I love it when a character seems to be a cliche but then has a lot more to them than meets the eye.

    Some books that I found unpredictable were the "The Fault in Our Stars" due to crying over a different tragic ending than the one I expected, and the Ellie Sweet series because there was actually a question of who would "win" the love triangle. I felt like both Palmer and Chase both had a true chance.

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  11. When you Reach Me by: Rebecca Stead is very unpredictable, but you don't know it until the end what the surprise is.... mwah ha ha....

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  12. In my current WIP, I have several good liars, including a seemingly arrogant snob who takes things out on my protagonist. He seems like a jerk, but the why makes him a deep character.
    A friend of mine is doing a Robin Hood retelling, and Nottingham happens to be the liar, pretending to be evil while helping Robin all he can.

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  14. Cool post! That one about the murdering detective sounds particularly interesting.
    In one of my manuscripts, I'm using a sort of reverse psychology for one of my villains: he's a nasty, jerky individual (at least to the mains), but I've tried hard to make him seem like he couldn't actually be the villain. He's annoying, but not evil. Plus, the villain has already been referred to as a "she" (long story), so the charries don't suspect him, and my readers don't either.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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