My now-8 year old daughter was a cute baby. She was roly-poly and liked singing to herself in baby babble. Her hair stuck straight up and her serious eyes stared directly at or through you.
When cooing strangers in the grocery store came up to my baby? She’d fire them an unblinking, belligerent glare that could curdle milk. Then she’d recoil--withdraw her arm, her head, her whole body from the stranger’s looming proximity. She looked like an outraged adult, offended by an unwelcome advance.
The strangers would draw back and laugh nervously. I’d mildly say, “ I’m sorry. She’s so funny sometimes.” And then I’d laugh hysterically as soon as the stranger left my aisle. The strangers’ reaction to her unexpected response was always so funny. Just like watching “Candid Camera.”
I’m really fond of the unexpected in my writing and I lenjoy reading it, too.
What surprises are good for:
For adding humor or quirkiness: You think a character is going to behave in a particular way. You’ve carefully portrayed Edna as an uptight prude. Your protagonist views Edna that way. Then Edna says something outrageous and brazen that completely shatters this stereotype. Or Edna invites the protagonist to lunch—and serves McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese on her delicate china. And Bloody Marys.
For suspense: Your character juggles his groceries on one hip while he fumbles with his house key. It’s a ho-hum scene with a character focused on doing two things at once. Ho-hum until he feels the gun pressing into his side.
As a distraction: Mystery writers need to put in clues. We don’t particularly want our readers to notice the clue until it’s time for the case to be solved. A suddenly erupting argument or a quickly-contained but alarming grease fire provides a wonderful opportunity to slip in a clue under the radar.
As a breath of fresh air: Is your scene getting stale? Is your character going through the same motions every day? Are their days a little too ordinary. Liven things up with something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be something major (scary landing during their plane trip)—it could be something as minor as a flat tire or a broken air conditioner that takes their day on a different and surprising trajectory.
Surprises may not be as fun in real life as they are in books. Do you enjoy throwing in unexpected elements to your story? Do you use big or little twists?