Oh yes! The art of surprise

8 thoughts on “Oh yes! The art of surprise”

  1. Great blog post. Your scenarios made me think of the stage play version of Blood Brothers. It begins with the end of the final scene where both brothers are shot dead. You know exactly what’s going to happen and yet it’s such a brilliant play that I’ve seen it three times. I can’t reconcile that with the obvious need to have an ending that the reader can’t predict. I don’t know how Russell did it but he broke those rules and created a masterpiece.


  2. Hi Ros
    Yes, sometimes knowing the end in advance can work, but must be hard to pull off. Not sure my Night Watch was a good example.What irks me more is when the end isn’t actually foreseen, but is just somehow what the reader has been led to expect. (Hope that makes sense!)


  3. Hi Ali
    Yes, subverting everyone expectations is a pretty good trick if you can pull it off. I can recommend Robert McKee’s ‘Story’, it stands just as well for novel writing as for films, I think, although it is huge. I did his 3 day course back in the 90’s and it was a pretty impressive tour de force. But the resolution that pops out of nowhere, is what McKee terms the ‘deus ex machina’ and is one of his cardinal sins.

    Another example of the plot that starts at the end, is the film American Beauty, (written by Alan Ball) where we are introduced to the main character and told that in exactly one year he will be dead. From that moment I felt bodily dragged into the film, wondering who, what, will kill him. That was masterful!

    Thanks for reminding me of all this!.


  4. Hello and thanks for visiting. Yes, I can think of a few ‘deus ex machina’ books that have really annoyed me, but I agree finding out how we get to the end can be a big draw.


  5. McKee’s ‘Story’ has been my bible for a long time. It applies to film, flash fiction, plays, everything to do with telling a story. I learned so much about reversal of expectations i.e surprise, and subtext from his deconstruction of several scenes from ‘Chinatown’.
    My other main enlightenment was his principle of antagonism. A positive value, the contrary, the contradictory and then the negation of the negation. e.g love, indifference, hate, hatred masquerading as love. Things get worse and worse as the story progresses. Upping the ante.


  6. Hi Paul – wondered if you might recognise yourself in this post. They did have lots of copies of McKee at BSU but they were always on loan!
    Ali B


  7. I often think that a simple way to inject good surprises into writing is to make sure one has sufficient subplots – preferably ones that connect with the themes of the story. The twists and turns that spring out of creating further subplots often surprises the writer, let alone the reader!


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