L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

by Amanda Patterson

If you are writing a novel, you need to include surprises for your readers. This post is about why you need surprises in stories and the three big surprises you need to include.

Why You Need Surprises In Stories

Readers love the shock of a revelation or a surprise. This device keeps readers interested, makes them concentrate, and it makes them turn the page. It also helps writers to plot a story.

“It is a cardinal sin to bore the reader.” ~Larry Niven

Just when the reader feels that the story is stabilising and that relief is in sight, shake them up. Skilful writers know how to do this naturally. They know how to place these surprises at strategic places in their novels to prevent a story from sagging or becoming boring.

You can insert surprises when it feels right or you can plan when you’re going to use them.

The Three Big Surprises

You need three big surprises in a story. (You also have many smaller ones, and some of these will be cliffhangers at the end of chapters and scenes.)

These three big surprises will be their most effective when you place them:

  1. At the end of the beginning. (At 20 000 words.)
  2. In the middle of the novel. (At 40 000 words.)
  3. At the end of the middle. (At 60 000 words.)

[In an 80 000-word novel, your beginning is 20 000 words long, the middle is 40 000 words long, and your ending is 20 000 words long.]

Big surprises always occur in an action scene. A good surprise means a spectacular failure on the part of your protagonist in this scene.

The Big Surprise:

  1. Is a story development that throws new light on the protagonist’s situation and/or has a negative impact on their situation.
  2. Makes matters worse in terms of the protagonist’s ability to achieve their story goal.
  3. Is a discovery your protagonist makes or an action that affects your protagonist.
  4. Always raises the stakes of the story.
  5. Must be believable.
  6. Must be worse than the one that has come before.

“Say what you will, but you’re never prepared for the surprise attack.” ~Sarah Dessen

The First Surprise

This should occur around scene 15, at the end of the beginning. It should be an action scene with your protagonist as the viewpoint character. Everything they think or believes should be challenged by something that happens here.

The Second Surprise

This shock comes in the middle of your novel, around scene 30. It should be an action scene with your protagonist as the viewpoint character. This is also an action scene and must be worse than the first. After this, there should be a sequel where your protagonist is devastated and they plot a new course of action for the remaining half of the novel.

“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” ~Oscar Wilde

The Third Surprise

This surprise should occur at the end of the middle, around scene 45. It should be an action scene with your protagonist as the viewpoint character. This shock should be disastrous and lead your protagonist to the dark night of the soul. If your surprise is good enough, it will seem impossible for your protagonist to achieve their story goal. This is where you set the stage for your novel’s end.

Exercises For Surprises

Write three scenes for the big surprises from your protagonist’s viewpoint. The antagonist blocks them from pursuing their story goal in each one. In the second and third surprises the surprises (and conflict) are worse than the ones that came before.

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