The Art of Surprise

I love surprises. I like unexpected twists in stories, random acts of kindness (okay, who doesn’t?) and I love surprise parties!

Surprise parties seem to be the theme of my November and I’m completely okay with that. Two weekends ago, my boyfriend proposed to me. We were at home together, getting ready to play a game of scrabble. He pulled out the board on which he had artfully arranged the letters into his proposal! Then, we went out to meet up with two other couples (an outing I had originally arranged several weeks ago). When we arrived at the bar, tons of our friends and family were there waiting for us! He had completely usurped our outing and turned it into a surprise engagement party! I was shocked and speechless (something that DOES NOT happen often with me).


Last weekend, my mom, sister and I held a surprise 70th birthday party for my dad. We’ve been planning this party since the beginning of the year and I have been awaiting the day gleefully every step of the way. My dad is a gregarious guy, an extrovert like me, so I knew he’d love it. Plus, we invited tons of his cousins and other relatives whom he doesn’t see often, many of whom he hadn’t seen in several years. The look on his face is something I will remember the rest of my life!

My dad and me. He had no clue!

It takes skill and attention to detail to pull off a surprise successfully. There are so many things that can go wrong! Someone could drop the bomb by accident (which is likely the most common cause of a spoiled surprise) or things just don’t go as you planned. We got so lucky last weekend! Everything worked out perfectly.

In talking things over with my now fiancé afterward, he was surprised that I never even noticed what he was doing. Things like: a friend would text me about our planned dinner just after he received a text. How he was dressed up a little too nice to go help a friend move something at their house (his cover for going to tell my parents that he was planning to propose to me). I’m pretty gullible and a bit oblivious at times, so I had absolutely no clue that all of this was happening in the wings.

All of this, besides making me think about all the good times being with family and friends, wedding plans and all that, makes me think about writing. Creating surprises in your story that don’t seem entirely out of left field is incredibly difficult. It’s similar to creating red herrings in a good mystery story. There’s a fine line between doing something that intrigues and surprises your reader and crossing over into the unbelievable. Readers like to be surprised, but they don’t like things to be disorderly or implausible. Orchestrating the fates of others, even fictional characters, still plays by rules that resemble life as we know it.

So, how do you learn to walk that fine line? Well, the easiest thing to do is to be a voracious and aware reader. Read for pleasure and for learning. Pay attention to what the authors you read are doing and then judge the story you’ve read. Were there surprises that happened? Did those occurrences happen too far outside of the realm of what makes sense in the story? If so, remember that and use it as a lesson as you approach your own writing.

Another thing you can do is talk through your plot with a friend. They can help point out holes or places of disconnect in your story before you even write it. Also, having someone read your story before you publish can be useful.  They can point out places where information is missing to draw your reader on an unexpected, but yet still plausible, plot path.

Surprises or unexpected events can be a good way to grab a reader’s attention and keep them on the edge of their seat. But, just be sure that you aren’t taking things too far. A story can’t rely on this device alone and maintain readers.

How do you approach keeping things interesting for your readers in your stories? Do you rely on unexpected events or red herrings to throw them off the trail? Please share any thoughts you have in the comments!

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