As a writer, one of your chief weapons is surprise. Surprise and delight. Surprise and delight and properly crafted reader expectations. Surprise, delight, properly crafted reader expectations, and…well, in my case, incredibly long blog posts where I blather on about things..
Surprise, delight, properly crafted reader expectations, incredibly long blog posts, and…Well, I could go on. You have lots of weapons.
You are a veritable weapons master as a writer.When the battle-axe doesn’t get the job done, you swap it out for shiruken. Or a trebuchet. Or a fighter jet. You are basically like one of those RPG characters you get in computer games that doesn’t give two figs for encumbrance; load up on all the weapons and use whatever you’re going to use.
But today I wanted to talk about surprise, delight, and properly crafted reader expectations, because for my money they’re among the three most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal.
First, though, an anecdote:
A TALE OF TWO PIZZA DELIVERIES
Being a chap of a certain age who lives alone and is often too tired to cook, I order pizza occasionally. It helps that I like pizza a whole lot. Even when the pizza is bad, it’s pretty good. And I do this often enough that I have the ritual of it down: I fire up the laptop, scan the special offers on the website, then pick one of the half-dozen regular orders I’ve got saved from previous visits.
This is not a process that requires much thought. Everything after I’ll order pizza for dinner is about 95% habit.
In recent months, I’ve had two experiences with the website that broke that habit in various ways. They were, in effect, surprises.
The first was an order where a pop-up appeared at the payment stage, asking if I would be willing to go down to the curb and collect my pizza in exchange for a three-dollar saving on my order. Being extraordinarily cheap, I said yes.
Thank you, the website said. This was a test to gauge interest in that particular offer and the pizza will be delivered to my door as normal, but they’d extend me the three-dollar savings to express their gratitude for giving them feedback.
Needless to say, I was psyched. Pizza that was cheaper than expected pretty much made my night.
The second order happened a few weeks later. I hit the website as normal, picked one of the discounted delivery coupons, put my order through and waited.
And noticed, after a whole bunch of waiting, that my order had been switched over to pick up at the store somewhere along the process without me noticing. Thus, I’d need to put on pants, go out into the night, and collect my pizza.
Also a surprise.
Not the good kind.
Half the reason I order pizza is ‘cause I can’t be arsed leaving the house. Suddenly finding myself having to leave the house anyway just means that I resented the pizza place. And the pizza. And everyone who had the misfortune to be in front of me at every traffic light along the way.
The next time I felt like ordering pizza, I said fuck it and ordered take-away Mexican instead. I didn’t have the time to fuck around with that kind of disappointment at meal-time.
SURPRISE AND DELIGHT GO TOGETHER LIKE PEPPERONI AND CHEESE
The reason I am smacking you upside the head with this incredibly heavy-handed metaphor is simple: if you’re deploying surprise in your story, it’s at its most powerful when it’s accompanied by something that will delight the reader.
The surprise is non-negotiable – a story that chugs along without any surprises is incredibly dull to read. It’s plagued by the feeling that other people have been there before, and there is nothing quite so dissatisfying as being able to predict every moment of a story before it happens.
The delight matters.
The delight in a surprise is the thing that elevates the story. It takes you from yeah, this is kinda cool to holy shiznit, this is awesome.
Because surprise is easy. Surprise is just the intrusion of something unexpected into our lives, and it’s comparatively easy to defy expectations. You just do something random.
New writers do this all the time.
Back when I was teaching writing regularly, you’d see in the work of younger writers who were fresh out of school. I don’t know what the fuck was going on in the curriculum at the time, but these folks had the words all short stories end in a surprise twist drilled into them. And lo, they put twists in the end of their stories.
So many goddamn twists.
Most of them were easy to spot. It takes an extraordinary amount of practice to actually keep a twist hidden, particularly in a two thousand words story. Usually you could pick the twist a hundred words in, just by paying attention to what wasn’t being said in the story.
The worst of them, though, they were just…there. AND SUDDENLY, THEY WAKE UP IN A FIELD OF BONES.
AND SUDDENLY, THE WORLD ENDS.
AND LO, IT WAS EARTH ALL ALONG.
OH, LOOK, A MONKEY.
Surprise without delight feels hollow, at best.
At worst, it feels like a betrayal.
SURPRISING READERS POORLY IS LIKE SHOOTING FISH IN A THIMBLE
This is the nature of writing fiction. Nothing exists in your story unless you put it there, overtly or via the process of suggestion. For all writers will bang on about characters taking on a life of their own, the truth is that you’re in change.
You put the words there. You tell the reader what’s important, where to focus. If you don’t want the reader to the colour of a character’s hair, you don’t mention the hair. If you don’t want them to know that there’s a ghost following everyone around, just quietly haunting everyone without doing anything that overtly affects the plot, you just avoid saying yo, look at the ghost.
It’s not there unless you say its there. Or, at least, imply that it’s there.
None of this is meant to take away from what readers bring to the process – they fill in all sorts of gaps between the words – but you’re the one taking lead.
You’re the guide.
Leading people astray when they’re trusting them to guide them is a dick move. People are well within their rights to get pissed when you do this to them.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE NECESSITY OF PROPERLY CRAFTED EXPECTATIONS
A good surprise is like setting up the punchline of a joke.
In humour, it’s the punchline that gets the laugh, but it’s the rest of the joke that does the set-up to make the punchline funny. Even if you go back to the most basic jokes we tell as kids, which rely heavily on question and answer, it’s the question that does the set-up.
Take one of the classics: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Your head buzzes with the possibilities, based on your knowledge of chickens and roads and the long history that this joke has in western culture.
The answers that are legitimately funny are the ones that are unexpected.
Fiction does the same thing.
Every story we read is slightly influenced by the stories that have come before it. All the conflicts, all the characters, all the surprises that have occurred in stories we’ve read before. When we start seeing a bunch of stories that share certain similarities of form and content, we start grouping them together into genres and sub-genres and sub-sub genres.
And, because we are human and we’re hardwired to recognise patterns, we start developing expectations. We learn to recognise beats that suggest certain things are coming. This beat involving a hardboiled PI and a sultry dame means we’re heading into the realm of noir. Add a touch of magic, and we’re heading into urban fantasy.
We come to expect certain things from certain scenes, even within a genre. There is a certain energy that comes from the first kiss between lovers, since we’ve read so many stories where love is part of the plot that we can extrapolate outward from there. When we see confrontations between sworn enemies, we do the same.
This isn’t something to fear – it’s something to embrace. To revisit one of my most oft-quoted passages from Samuel Delany’s About Writing:
As far as I can see, talent has two sides. The first side is the absorption of a series of complex models – models for the sentence, models for narrative scenes, and models for various larger literary structures.
Which brings us to the second side of talent. The second side is the ability to submit to those models. Many people find such submission frightening. At the order, even from inside them, “Do this – and let the model control the way you do it,” they become terrified – that they’ll fail, fall on their face, or look stupid.
But that’s the core of the good set-up. Find the models. Submit to them until you can bear it no more.
And then you break the pattern. You unleash the surprise.
THE TRICK OF DELIGHT
Everyone has a different background as a reader, everyone has a different set of experiences that they’re bringing to the table. You play to that. You acknowledge that everyone has different tastes, different tolerances. There is a time, when you’re a kid, where a punchline like to get to the other side is the stuff a manic laughter. It is fricken’ comedy genius.
There is a time, in adulthood, where it falls completely flat.
The same is true of surprises and the expectations a reader brings to the table.
One of the cardinal rules of writing is you must read, largely because it’s part of your job to internalise the patterns and rhythms of other stories.
The reason you read widely within your genre is to understand the kinds of surprises that are delighting readers, both historically and in the contemporary marketplace. The reason you read outside of your genre is so you can find new patterns to apply in certain situations. Either way, you go out and absorb. You learn what surprises may break a reader, and those that won’t. You learn how far you can push a genre (and then, if you’re of a certain disposition, you try to push it further).
You learn what delights you, as a reader, and you start to pick apart the reasons it delights you.
The trick of delight is this: it’s a surprise that is truly unexpected, but makes perfect sense in hindsight. It’s the surprise that is seeded, over and over again, in ways that the reader hasn’t picked up upon.
It’s the surprise that seems effortless and perfectly natural.
And, when you’re writing to fans of an established genre who are deeply read in the commonly occurring tropes, it’s incredibly hard to achieve.
YOUR STORY PROVIDES CONTEXT FOR THE SURPRISE
Consider, if you will, the climax of the original Star Wars movie. Luke Skywalker is flying down a mechanical trench, trying to destroy the Death Star. There are fighters on his tail. The other guys in his fighter wing are dead. All hope is lost, mother-fuckers, and you better prepare for some Death Star related dominance in your neck of the galaxy.
Then the Millennium Falcon shows up and it’s a brilliant goddamn moment. You’ve been rooting for Han Solo to transform into a good guy the entire film, and suddenly he steps up. You root for it because the hints are there, little moments where he shows flashes of being a decent human being, but the film takes care to show that he could tip either way, and he definitely tipped on the side of mercenary asshole in the scenes just prior to the space battle.
Surprise and perfectly seeded delight. Out of all the possible things that could have happened in that moment, it’s the one that you most wanted and least expected.
And then we come upon the actual climax – Luke Skywalker, who has spent the entire film wanting to be a pilot, turning off his targeting computer and trusting in the force.
The film has spent 110 minute setting you up for this moment.
On one hand, you’ve got this gloriously high-tech universe. Space ships. Aliens. Weird laser-swords and blasters. Technological terrors capable of blowing up a planet. On the other hand, it’s been seeding all this woogie-woogie magic – Ben Kenobi being described as a mad old wizard, arch-enemies engaged in a sword fight, Darth Vader force-choking the crap out anyone who pisses him off.
And Luke, tasked with destroying this monstrous terror of technology, finally stops wavering and puts the technology away in order to embrace magic.
He embraces magic. In a science fiction film.
Like the hero in a goddamn fairy-tale.
Surprise. Perfectly seeded delight. Because, again, without even realising it, you’ve been waiting for Luke to embrace is woogie-woogie-magic-wizard riff for the entire goddamn film and it’s the greatest goddamn thing in the world when it happens.
Especially if you’re eight years old.
I mean, holy shit, if you’re eight years old, that is like goddamn crack.
I’ve been thinking about this because Horn came out in kindle format last week. It’s bizarre, seeing a book that was written a few years ago getting edged to the forefront by the publisher again, and I started revisiting some of my original notes in a faint pang of nostalgia.
Horn experimented with genres and surprise, right from the beginning. It got its start as short story draft that featured an autopsy scene in a fantasy world, building up to the phrase she’s been raped by a unicorn as the unexpected thing that occurred at the scene’s climax.
That soon became the end of the first chapter.
The joy of writing that book was playing two sets of expectations against each other. First, the patterns people came to expect when they heard the word unicorn. Second, the expectations that came from police procedurals and autopsy scenes.
It was a moment of surprise that set up, in a lot of ways, other stuff that was coming in the latter half of the book. Also a warning because, quite honestly, if that first moment didn’t give you a frisson of delight as a reader, there was no chance in hell that the rest of the book would do so.
There were some folks who delighted in that combination, and there were some folks who really, really did not.
The folks who did not would track me down at conventions and say so, I read your book in the same tone Many Patinkin uses when he says My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepared to die.
And that’s cool. That’s as it should be. You cannot delight everyone. That’s why we have different genres, different sub-genres, different styles, different approaches. They were folks who showed up looking for a home-delivered pizza, then found themselves having to drive out to the store.
The people who liked Horn, though, tended to like it a lot. Often against their better judgement. Often with a kind of begrudging terror.
Which I enjoy, because I am a horrible, horrible person who feeds on your pain. And because, if I’m going to write about unicorns, I’m going to tarnish your mental image of them fore the rest of your goddamn life.
It was the book that really taught me how powerful this combination can be, ’cause I honestly never expected it get published. It’s a book full of horrible, horrible things happening to not-so-horrible people. It crosses lines that, quite honestly, I’m unlikely to cross at any other point in my career.
And yet, it worked. It found a readership. Weird, misfit little band of folks who liked their unicorns with souls blacker than tar and their heroines a little rumpled around the edges. Folks who…well, delighted feels like the wrong word, given the content, but folks who found some delight in the way that book unfolded.
Really, that’s why you get into writing. To share the things that delight you, be they based in theme or character or setting or plot or any of a dozen different elements of writing.
ONE FINAL NOTE
There’s a phrase I hear sometimes, when talking to new writers. I say something like what genre are you working in, and they say I don’t know. There’s nothing really like it out there.
That’s probably not the advantage they’re hoping for.
If you don’t know what people’s expectations are, it’s hard to surprise them. It’s hard to seed in the kind of details that will make your particular style of surprise work.
It’s hard to delight someone with discounted pizza if they think they’re ordering Thai food. Not impossible, sure, but hard.
The delight is the core of what you do as a writer. Get out there and rock it.