A Surprise in Every Scene
(Excerpt from Complete Boot Camp for Fiction Writers)
Every scene should have a built-in surprise. Whether this is a surprise only to the reader, or a surprise also for the POV character, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a surprise of some kind. What kind of surprise, you ask.
1/ Drop an information bomb.
News to the reader, ‘cause the character already knew this, or news to character, and to the reader. Let’s see–1st instance: Maybe have the antagonist bring up the fact the protagonist served time in juvie for shoplifting. The protagonist is humiliated to have that thrown at him once again. Oh! Your reader will respond, this adds a new dimension to my chosen hero. I hope he’s up to the task. 2nd instance: Maybe have character one, Charlie, clutch his chest in pain, and gasp, “What did you give me?” Have character two, Tyler, snatch up the pill bottle, read the label, his eyes widening in horror. “These aren’t your pills: these are Desmond’s! Why are they even here, with your medicine?” Charlie falls across his desk, everyone is screaming, accusing Tyler of attempting to kill Charlie, running for help. Tyler leans in to hear Charlie’s last whispered words, “I knew I could bring you down with me.”
2/ Have a character shock everyone with their actions.
This example is from my book After the Party.
Laura’s gaze met Dean’s briefly, skipped to Stan’s gun and back again. Dean blinked his understanding. The gun was pointed toward the floor now. They had to make their move now while they still could.
She smiled at Stan and said, “I’ll bet you didn’t know why Richard was hiding all that money.” From the expression on his face, she knew she had him. She continued, “What you didn’t know is Richard Saunders is not Holly’s father. Fraser Malette is.”
Stan blinked at receiving the news. “Yeah, so? What does that have to do with me?”
“What it has to do with you is, Richard confessed to me last night that he knew all along that Holly wasn’t his.” Laura slid farther away from Dean, drawing Stan’s attention with her. She had to give Dean a clear path to the gun. It was their only hope.
Then she lied to Stan. “Apparently, Marion changed her will, leaving the company in your and Fraser’s control. Can you believe it? It would have all come to light when her sealed instructions, scheduled to be opened when Holly turned twenty-one, would have exposed everything. Of course, we all know the seal on those instructions will be broken sometime this week.”
“So?” Stan prodded her on, growing frustrated as she strung out her story. “What’s your point?”
“You would have gotten the money anyway, Stan.”
Stan’s jaw dropped, and the gun now hung at his side. Laura felt rather than saw Dean gather himself to leap across the room at Stan, while he was distracted by her eleventh-hour revelations.
Then with horror, she watched Stormy trot over to Stan and begin worrying at his pant leg with his little teeth. Stan pulled back his foot and kicked Stormy across the room toward her. The puppy yelped. Stevie cried out in protest and rushed forward with his arms outstretched toward the yipping pup. Stan drew back his arm and backhanded Stevie with the gun. The sickening sound of the gun making contact with Stevie’s head seemed to reverberate around the room. June screamed from the kitchen.
Before Stan could bring the gun back around and aim it at them once again, Dean leapt across the room, grabbed Stan’s wrist, and forced the gun up into the air. It went off, a bullet punching a hole in the ceiling. Then another shot rang out, and Stan’s expression of rage slid from his face, replaced by one of mild surprise. The gun dropped harmlessly to the floor, and Dean stepped away.
With both hands, Stan clasped his chest. A dark stain grew rapidly across his jacket, and he fell back onto the floor with a soft whimper, then was silent. His eyes remained open, staring sightlessly up to the ceiling. Dean and Laura exchanged confused glances.
The gun hadn’t been pointed at Stan.
Laura looked around the room, her gaze arrested at the sight of June Taylor standing by the kitchen counter, arms locked in front of her, Morris Gibson’s police pistol wobbling in both hands. Her face was white.
“Dean,” Laura warned, “June needs your help now.”
Dean strode to June and gently took the gun from her slack fingers, unloading the weapon immediately and dropping the clip into his pocket.
June looked up at him and simply said, “He shouldn’t have hurt my boy,” then quietly crumbled to the floor in a dead faint
3/ Tell a back story that changes everything.
Think Life of Pi. The book and movie are beautifully realized, full of images and fantasy. The life and death struggle of Pi and the Tiger, Richard Parker is gripping. This is of course, a telling of the tale by Pi to his visitor, so the fact that he survives is not the issue. It’s how he survived in a small boat with a hungry tiger that draws us in. The backstory that changes everything and sent chills down my spine was when Pi revealed the real identity of each of the animals in the boat. Wow, what a backstory. All the pieces came apart and rearranged themselves again in a totally different configuration, the story taking on new poignant meaning. I did not see that coming. What a coping mechanism. I loved this book.
4/ Kill off a beloved character.
Think An Officer and a Gentleman. Events were bottled necked in this story, with no one willing to make a move. Everything was released with Sid Worley’s suicide. (Sid is both a buddy and a mirror character. Refer to chapter 9.) Again, I did not see that coming, it was shocking and heartbreaking and finally broke through Zak’s hardened shell of a heart. Heartbreaking; game changing.
5/ Show a connection no one could have anticipated.
Think Star Wars. Who is Luke’s real father? You’re kidding! You know what I’m saying …
6/ Receive help from an unexpected source.
Think Severus Snape in the last Harry Potter. That was a great unexpected source, was it not? To maintain that for seven books was incredible. Good one J.K.!
7/ Have a trusted ally betray the team.
Think Cypher from the Matrix: “I’ve been thinking ever since I got here, ‘Why, oh, why didn’t I take that blue pill?’” Heartbreaking; game changing.
This is your story–you plan the surprises. Trust me, this is fun! These pings of joy are so rewarding for your reader. Give them some candy ….