I’ve been thinking about the concept of surprise as it relates to fiction and specifically the relationship between writer and reader. Readers like to be surprised, as a general rule, but it has to be the right sort of surprise. We’re all familiar with the iconic “Twilight Zone” story where the payoff is an ironic twist. That works in small doses, but do it time and again and it becomes too much like a parlor trick everyone’s seen once too often. The punch goes away and the surprise is no longer surprising. I’ve talked about ending before, and how it has to be the “right” ending for the story. The right ending will always have a sense of inevitability about it, whether the reader sees it coming or not. But is it really better if they don’t? And, if so, what can be reasonably sacrificed to make that happen?
This is the balance that concerns me, because I find it’s one aspect of storytelling that we have to deal with all the time. Fiction is a consensus illusion created between the writer and the reader. As a writer you craft a dream that the reader, for a while, shares. Yet their experience reading will never be the same as yours writing. They will never quite see the characters as you do, and they will interpret intent and meanings with their own perspective. That’s not a problem, that’s just the way the game works and all writers have to be aware of it. But the writer who goes for surprise has to be especially aware of and, in a sense, manipulate that perspective, and the primary tools are omission and misdirection.
Here’s where we get into dangerous territory. I’ve already talked about playing fair with the reader and that applies in spades here. While I consider misdirection fair game when it’s done well (it was all there, not my fault you were looking elsewhere. Ok, so it is my fault. Gotcha), omission is another can of eels entirely. Omission can compromise the entire foundation of the shared illusion–the reader’s trust. The writers have their own trust issues: that the reader is capable of following where you’re leading, that sort of thing. Readers, for their part, have to trust that you know what you’re doing and won’t waste their time and, above all, that you will play fair. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now–readers will put up with a lot: less than stellar prose, the occasional factual goof, the list is almost endless. As I said before, one thing readers will not put up with is a cheat, and withholding vital information from the reader is always on the edge of cheating.
It can be done. I’ve done it and you probably have too, but it can never be done lightly or carelessly and usually only when the logic of the story won’t allow the matter to be handled any other way, and even then the payoff has to justify it, and that’s usually for the reader to decide.
All that said, I’m not a big fan of surprise. I do think the best endings have both a sense of inevitability and manage to surprise the reader anyway, but that inevitability trumps all, including surprise. This position actually conflicts somewhat with the whole notion of surprise. More than once a reader has said to me, “Great story, but I figured out what was going on about halfway in” to which I always have to resist the urge to pat their heads and say, “Well, yes. Congratulations on being able to read.” So how can an ending be both inevitable and surprising? Omission usually doesn’t buy you that effect, in my experience, but one way is misdirection. Call the reader’s attention to one set of expectations and, while they’re concentrating on that, pull the rug out with the other hand that has been in plain sight all the time, and not my fault you weren’t watching. It can be done well or badly but, to me, it always feels like a parlor trick.
The nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my work, imo, went something like this: “You think you’ve seen this before. At first glance the story is almost familiar. Don’t let that fool you; I never know where his stories are going.” That’s my idea of surprise. I don’t always manage, but it’s what I’m shooting for. And it gets me into trouble, sometimes. Because of the dictates of the Cult of Surprise, readers expect you to try and fool them. More than once I’ve been asked, “Why did so and so do thus and such?” Ummm, didn’t you read the part where the character SAID why she did it? “You mean she was telling the truth?”
Of course she was, as am I. I always tell the truth. In my fashion.