Hello everyone. I know things have been silent on my end for a bit, but I have been hard at work on Emaculum. I’m on Episode 6 at the moment, so only two more to go before it gets released into the wild. Since I’ve been writing and thinking about writing quite a bit lately, I thought I’d talk about one of the most powerful tools writers have in their arsenal: Surprise.
***A word of warning: The first part of this piece has a spoiler for The Scourge. And the second has a spoiler for Nostrum. Proceed at your own peril.***
Have you ever had an eargasm? You know, that moment when you’re listening to a song and suddenly get chills? It could be a particular lyric, or a lilt of the singer’s voice. But often, it’s an unexpected change in tempo or pitch. A change-up, so to speak, that catches us by surprise.
Writing is very similar. In fact, pretty much all artistic media operates on similar principles. An artist should strive to keep his or her work fresh. To give his or her audience something new. If you’ve read my previous post on writing with flourish, then you’ll remember I spoke of Maximus, from Gladiator.
“I will give them something they’ve never seen before.”
Maximus should have been a writer, because that’s exactly what writers need to strive for. Anyone can write a story. But readers don’t just want to read a story. They want to be entertained. They want something they’ve never seen before. They want to be kept off balance, never knowing exactly what will happen next. Never allowed to get too comfortable. As George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) knows all too well, if you surprise and shock your readers, then they will truly fear for your protagonist.
But surprise is not just a way to scare the bejeesus out of readers. It’s also a way to keep the story fresh and fast paced and entertaining. I’ll use a few examples from my books, as I usually do, because I know them best and I’m too lazy to find passages in books by authors I love.
So here, first of all, is a scene from The Scourge, where Sir Edward, Sir Morgan, and Sir Tristan run up against an ocean of plaguers and Tristan gets caught in the horde. Edward thinks his friend has been torn apart. But the guilt and sorrow give way to joy when he sees Tristan rise up and climb into a tree. Cue the happy music. Smiles all around. But it’s precisely at those moments, when the sun is shining and the angels are singing, when surprise works best. You have to gouge the needle across the record so the happy music screeches to a halt:
I watch as Tristan pulls himself from the saddle and wraps his legs around the limb while the afflicted swipe at him. I watch as he flattens himself against the bottom of the branch. And I laugh as he gives two fingers to the mass of plaguers that reach for him and rip apart his horse. I must have kept my eyes open for too long because I feel them tearing up. I wipe at them and laugh again.
Tristan is alive.
“Stay in the tree!” I scream it as loudly as I can manage. Tristan rolls himself up onto the bough and sits. He can’t see me so he leans low to look through the downy branches and blows me a kiss. “Stay in the tree, you idiot!” I try not to smile as I shout to him. “We’ll come back for you. You’ll be safe in the tree!”
He holds up a thumb and I think he nods. And before I can respond, God smites the earth.
That’s what it sounds like. An explosion so unearthly that for a moment I am certain God has come down to earth to finish the job he started with this plague. The sound echoes across the hills so that I can’t tell where it came from. Plaguers near the willow fly into the air like daisies chopped by a sickle. One of them is split into pieces and each of the pieces flies in a different direction. Something skims off the grass with a resonant thud, then slams high into the willow branches.
There is silence. Even the plaguers stop moving.
Surprise! The story was settling into a happy lull and the danger faded. But fading danger equals fading tension, and tension is the heartbeat of any story. I actually tried to write that scene without the smiting stuff. Edward and Morgan were going to regroup and figure out how to get Tristan out of the tree, and possibly talk to the men and women they rescued. But the scene started to feel flat. And that’s another time when surprise can be used very effectively — when the story seems to be slowing down, or when the rest of the scene is becoming too predictable and not interesting enough. If your story is not interesting, you are dead in the water. Be anything you want as a writer, but never be boring. Surprise will often help you inject life into a slow scene. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said it best: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
Here’s another surprise from the Scourge books. This one is in Nostrum (book 2). Everyone knows Tristan is a wise-ass, but he’s often the voice of reason, as well. Readers begin to expect him to provide that voice of reason. And when readers get too comfortable with something, it’s time to surprise them. In this scene, Edward and Tristan have found a group of villagers throwing a woman into a river. They say they are sacrificing her to a “dragon” that has been threatening the area. Their actions enrage Tristan, who enters lecture-mode.
Tristan looks at the bound woman in the river and raises his hands. He turns toward the crowd.
“When will you people stop acting like sheep? Your priest tells you there is a dragon in the area, so you allow him to tie up your women and throw them into the river? Is that what Christians do these days?”
He points to the woman in the Stour.
“This river is probably tidal. You will go home and, during the night, the river will rise and she will drown. Her body will be carried out to sea. You will come back in the morning and she will not be here, and this priest will tell you a dragon took her. And you will believe him, won’t you? And you will allow him to murder more of your women! If you have any left, that is. Do you people have no minds? Do you truly think a dragon simply swoops down and … Satan’s hairy cock! Holy Christ almighty! House of fucking Gemini!”
Tristan staggers backward as a dragon bursts from the forest and roars. I am too stunned to react, and so is everyone else. The dragon leaps into the river, hisses, then snatches up the woman in its toothy maw.
Surprise! This works on a few different levels, I think. The first is that, this time, Tristan is not the voice of reason. He is dead wrong, and so the events have defied the readers’ expectations. This also works, I think, because Tristan gets what he deserves for his smugness and preachiness. He often ridicules people of faith for preaching and trying to push their views on others, and here he is, doing the same thing. And it comes back to bite him. Literally. And lastly, I think it works in a rather obvious way; a goddamn dragon just leaped out of the forest in medieval England. Surprise!
Okay, so it’s not *truly* a dragon, but the reader doesn’t know that at the time. And so it’s a shock. Which electrifies the reader. It’s a change in pitch. A change-up. An eargasm for the mind. And hopefully it keeps the readers wanting more.
Oh, and one last thing, like any tool in the writer’s quiver, don’t overuse it. Surprise is just an occasional spark. A dash of red among the grays and greens. The singer’s voice breaking at the climax of the song. God smiting the earth on a happy summer day. If you do it too often, the reader then expects a surprise. And it’s hard to surprise a reader expecting a surprise. Except maybe not surprising the reader at all. And a story without surprises is like a loveless marriage between reader and writer.
And there are no eargasms in a loveless marriage.