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The Power of Surprise

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Greer-Final-2-e1646614687947.jpeg?resizeSome writers like to plan, and others like to figure things out as they go along, and both have their place. But both planners and pantsers can benefit from surprise along the way.

Are all surprises good? Absolutely not. If a reader picks up a murder mystery and finds it’s actually a rom-com, that’s not the good kind of surprise. Ditto for romances where the hero dies at the end or a “sci-fi” novel that takes place in a present identical to ours in every way. But barring extreme left-field surprises, there are three ways that writers can wield the power of surprise to our advantage.

Surprise your characters. This is one of the great advantages you have over your characters: you know what’s coming, and they don’t. You can really knock them for a loop. How a character reacts to something unexpected—surprise party to sudden death and anything in between—can be a great moment of character development. Surprises also have a way of goosing the plot. Again, truly left-field events can go too far—it takes a very special book to host a rabid squirrel falling out of a tree onto a birthday cake—but if you find a scene growing stale, maybe it’s time for an unexpected guest or the revelation of a secret that wasn’t intended to come to light.

Surprise your reader. While surprises for your characters and surprises for your reader can be the same thing, they don’t have to be. There are plenty of things characters know that readers don’t, and revealing them at the right time can be just the kind of surprise that rockets a plot into motion. I love the kind of book where a character is struggling with a secret that you think they’re going to suffer through angstily for 300 pages and it turns out that their best friend blurts it out in chapter 2 and then everyone has to deal with the blowback. Withholding info from the reader is part of how plot works, but it can also make for a frustrating read. Consider putting it all out there and letting the sparks fly.

Surprise yourself. Last but definitely not least, even if you’re a planner who enjoys 50-page outlines and extensive character worksheets, you might benefit from leaving some room for surprise in the writing process. Surprises can be small moments of beauty as well as big earth-shattering events. Set challenges for yourself, just to see what happens. Can you write a romantic scene where the characters don’t even touch? Can you take a scene you’ve already written that you’re not happy with and shake it up by adding a character, constraining the characters you do have, or relocating the action? Even if you don’t end up with something publishing-ready, you may create something that helps you either on this project or the next.

Q: How will you try surprising your reader, your characters, or yourself?


About Greer Macallister

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister earned her MFA in creative writing from American University. Her historical novels have been named Book of the Month, Indie Next, LibraryReads, Target Book Club, and Amazon Best Book of the Month picks and optioned for film and television. Her upcoming book, SCORPICA (as G.R. Macallister), is the first in the Five Queendoms series and her epic fantasy debut. A regular contributor to Writer Unboxed and the Chicago Review of Books, she lives with her family in Washington, DC. www.greermacallister.com

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