The element of surprise – why fiction needs ‘Red Weddings’ and Soapie-loving tough guys

Out of nowhere, he dropped it on me. I think we were talking about a HR memo and out of nowhere ­

the huge, bearded mountain of a man – the man I regarded as a real tough guy, someone who kept to himself and rarely cracked a smile – drops into conversation casual-like, ‘did you know on the Bold and the Beautiful…’.

‘What?! Did you just say the Bold and the Beautiful.’  I was convinced I must have misheard him. He gave a bashful smile and confirmed that he did in fact say the Bold and the Beautiful. Then he launched into a complete update on the latest storylines, stars and actors to a level of detail rivaling TV Soap magazine. Then he fessed up that he was a major soap fan from way back. Days of Our Lives, Neighbours, Young and the Restless, all of the classics. He was a walking soap opera wiki.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I actually snorted with laughter, and then I howled with laughter and then I cackled. The crazed cackle was enough to bring my colleague into the room to check on me.
I wasn’t laughing because of this tough-guy’s viewing taste. Each to their own, I say. I was beside myself with amusement due to the complete surprise of it. It was totally unexpected, and it made my day. Fortunately this guy, that I now know a little better, saw the humour in it and wasn’t offended by my over the top reaction.
This got me thinking about how the element of surprise can be shocking but also utterly delightful.
Good fiction, particularly sci-fi and fantasy often features twists and surprises. Everyone must remember the (often misquoted) Empire Strikes Back scene where Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke Skywalker’s father. Audiences around the world cried out ‘Noooooooo’ in unison with Luke.
Every good story should have an element of surprise. It doesn’t necessarily mean a twist at the end, just unexpected events.
A good twist in a story or surprise ending shouldn’t be predictable, but it shouldn’t be completely shocking either. What I mean by that is that a reader should be able to go back after the fact and identify clues. However the clues should be laid cleverly enough that they never give the surprise completely away. This is a sign of good foreshadowing.
Sure, readers like to anticipate certain things and surprise endings that seem to come from nowhere can be annoying. A good surprise has to add to the story. It needs to fit and add to the reading experience. It shouldn’t appear disjointed.
It can be really enjoyable to not know how a story is going to unfold, though we tend to anticipate a happy ending – generally speaking of course.
This is where Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has made surprise his signature. He is known for killing off favourite characters when you least expect it and has turned heroic fantasy on its head. The success of his books and the TV series are proof that you don’t necessarily need ‘happily ever after’ to create a great story.
Martin says that it’s important for his readers never to feel too comfortable. That they mustn’t be convinced that the hero must prevail.
“I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned (Stark) in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it,” Martin says. (We all know what happened to poor ole Ned Stark.)
“I try to make the readers feel they’ve lived the events of the book. Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?”
I’m not sure I will ever take surprises to the same extreme as Martin, and I won’t be including a ‘Red Wedding’ in my books any time soon. I just couldn’t do it to myself, least of all my readers.
However I definitely plan on a few surprises. Shocking surprises – maybe; Delightful surprises – I hope. It may not be a man-mountain who loves soap operas, but…then again…
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Kylie Fennell
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