This surprise doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as a twist ending. It can be something as minor as a character showing an unexpected bit of depth or an unusual facet of his personality.
But I also like it when I’ve expected the plot to take a particular trajectory and something else happens.
I like to see an unexpected bit of trouble thrown at a character, too. How will they react? How does it change the direction of the story?
What surprises are good for:
As a distraction: A suddenly erupting argument or a quickly-contained but alarming grease fire provides a wonderful opportunity to slip in a clue under the radar. Writers of other genres can also use this slight of hand technique to protect a larger surprise later in the book.
For adding humor or quirkiness: You think a character is going to behave in a particular way. You’ve carefully portrayed Agnes as an uptight prude. Your protagonist views Agnes that way. Then Agnes says something outrageous and brazen that completely shatters this stereotype. Or Agnes invites the protagonist to lunch—and serves McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese on her delicate china. With Bloody Marys.
For suspense: You can write a fairly ho-hum scene with a character going through her usual routine…which is suddenly interrupted when she’s carjacked.
As a change of pace: Is your scene getting stale? Is your character going through the same motions every day? 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.
As a way to add depth to a character: While we want our characters to behave in character, it’s always fun to see different facets of a character, too. How do they react when we put them into an emergency situation? How do they react when we poke fun at them or put them under stress? What happens when we press their buttons? Sometimes their reactions can surprise us.
Do you enjoy throwing in surprising elements to your story? Do you use big or little twists?