How to Surprise Readers with the Familiar

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No writer wants to hear that his story is “predictable.” It one of the worst criticisms you can give a writer. It suggests tedium and dullness.  At the same time writers are told that characters should be consistent, that they should never lurch from the rules that govern their personalities – in other words, characters should be somewhat predictable; otherwise, their life-like illusion breaks down.

A simple example is Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is about as predictable as a character can get. He loves cookies, he always loves cookies, and the farther Cookie Monster is willing to go in pursuit of cookies, the more lovable he is. No one wants to see Cookie Monster drop cookies for cauliflower – unless in the end he realizes the error of his ways and comes home to his true nature: Cookie! Om, nom, nom, nom!

Cookie Monster is predictable in motive, but he is not dull. He is endlessly creative when it comes to finding new and unpredictable ways to appreciate cookies.

The same is true in serious fiction. Characters that do surprising things will only be believable if what they do fits with their overall personality structure. I want my characters to be complex enough to throw readers for a loop, yet predictable enough for readers to form expectations. When I grasp a story well enough to form expectations, I am fully engaged.

If I make predictions about what a character will do in a situation, at least part of the time I want to be right. If a character I know to be obsessive-compulsive sees a crooked picture hanging on the wall, I predict that he will not be able to rest until he straightens it; when I am right, I feel rewarded.

But suppose my OCD character walks by the picture without stopping. I am intrigued. Is he violating the rules of his psyche? Maybe not. Maybe he is at a formal gathering where he is trying not to appear OCD. Afraid of calling attention to himself, he sweats and fidgets, unable to get the crooked picture out of his mind, yet he tries to appear composed. When he can no longer endure the tension, he runs to the picture and straightens it. Thus, I am rewarded. I was right after all, just not exactly in the way I expected.

His behavior reminds me of something old about him, yet teaches me something new: the character has the willpower to resist his OCD to a point, even if it means suffering, but he cannot sustain his restraint indefinitely.

Aside from letting me make predictions, a character who repeats certain actions over and over seems real to me, because people I have encounter in real life have patterns. A character with an annoying habit of munching ice cubes whole while wreaking dental havoc seems alive.

When reading, what I seek is a paradox: a familiar surprise. For example, when you read a murder mystery, the criminal will never be a person the author has never mentioned. She will not introduce a line-up of characters, describe their backgrounds and alibis, and then at the end of the novel say, “Ha ha, I tricked you! It was none of them. The true culprit was some dude named Bob I never mentioned. Surprise!” What makes the ending satisfying is that the surprise is also familiar.

A familiar surprise challenges my mind because it is the interaction of two opposing processes: recognizing the old while absorbing startling new information that turns my original assumptions upside down. The two processes conjoined forge a satisfying and memorable experience, a synaptic flash, an awesome jolt that sends chills down the back of my neck and makes my hair stand on end: The real killer was Peggy, the baby sitter? Really? I would have never guessed, but I should have. Of course, it was her.

Even without being surprised, I like being reminded of what a writer has previously told me. If the writer tells me that a character loves Cracker Jacks, then it is satisfying to see the character frequently indulging in Cracker Jack hedonism at odd moments, perhaps stopping to grab a pack while running from a zombie in a super-market.

However, a jolting surprise without recognition is trickier to pull off.

Have you ever seen a movie or read a book that has so many plot twists, it gives you whiplash? Plot twists without an adequate foundation to prepare readers seem faked. Plot twists only work if the writer has laid enough groundwork or given enough clues for readers to make sound predictions. When a plot lurch happens, I need something to ground me in the action, a clue, something to recognize.  Otherwise, I feel locked out of the drama and, as a result, I find the story unsatisfying.

Aside from clues, foreshadowing prepares readers for a future moment of recognition. The writer provides symbolic hints of big events looming on the horizon. A great example of foreshadowing is the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke enters a cave on Degobah and has a vision of meeting Darth Vader there; Luke removes the mask of the Dark Lord, and it is his own face he sees.

This scene brilliantly foreshadows the climactic battle scene in which the real Darth Vader tells Luke, “I am your father.” By then, the vision at Degobah has paved the way for the dramatic revelation that turns the story upside down.

Not only is Luke related to Darth Vader by blood; Luke discovers that evil has a human face and that the darkness is not confined to Darth Vader; it is inside Luke himself. Luke has a choice: he can fight it or succumb to it. The previous vision on Degobah charges the scene – and the situation – with the resonance of a familiar surprise.

Surprise is a dynamic staple of fiction writing, but not any surprise will do. Readers need solid ground to stand on as the capricious winds blow, a stable pattern, a sturdy bridge leading to a place where the familiar meets the strange.


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