Is anything surprising anymore?

Posted: October 7, 2013 in Books & Reading, Movies, TV Shows
Tags: ,

It’s sort of a rhetorical question because, yes, there are some things that are still surprising. But more on that in a minute.

I watch a lot of television and movies, and I read a lot of books. I don’t get taken by surprise too often. It’s not actually a bad thing — more often than not we know how the journey will end, but it’s the act of going on that journey that is the most interesting part.

Any action movie or adventure book can attest to this. Nine times out of ten the hero will save the day, get the girl, and blow stuff up. By the end of the movie we know that most of the main characters will be alive, the problem will be solved, and everyone will pretty much go home happy.

Is there a problem with an ending like that? Not usually, no. It’s satisfying, even if we knew it was coming. It’s what leads up to that point that makes the story interesting. It’s not the “if,” it’s the “how.”

Dexter PosterBut sometimes I just really want to be shocked, you know? I want to be totally blindsided by a plot or a character’s motivations. I want to never see it coming and have it literally knock me off my feet. It’s fun to be that surprised after feeling like you’ve figured out the plot of something ten minutes or ten pages into a new story.

Last week I talked about how Fringe did this to me. It was a great feeling. But then as I was watching Dexter, I figured out exactly who the major evil villain guy was an episode or two before the big reveal. It wasn’t exactly hard — you just think about whose betrayal would have the biggest impact on the characters, and there you have it.

It’s sort of a catch-22 isn’t it? You want your big reveal to have impact and be believable. But oftentimes, in order for that to happen, you have to lay the groundwork of that plot, which can show up as a big, flashing neon sign. If you don’t lay that groundwork, the reveal will be shocking, but it won’t have the impact you were hoping for. If it’s just a random person, it won’t affect your main characters as much as if it were their best friend.

I think the best way to solve this problem is with red herrings. You want it to seem like the bad guy (or whatever shocking thing you’re trying to keep secret — it doesn’t have to be a villain) could be multiple people. Or you want to lead your audience in one direction, and then pull them in the other at the last second. This doesn’t always work either, because sometimes a change in direction like that can be anticipated, but it’s definitely worth a try.

What do you think? Do you have trouble being surprised by the turn of events you witness on screen or in a book? Without giving away spoilers (just in case!), what’s a shocking moment you remember that really took you off guard?

  1. Jae says:

    Dexter the book was a lot more shocking than the TV series with its reveal. Also with the way it ended. Part of me isn’t sure I want to know what evil people are doing in the shadows. Life is already crazy enough without having those things to think about. 😉 But there’s still something so fascinating about a serial killer who only kills serial killers.

    I think for me one of the big reveals was finding out in the movie Serenity what reavers actually were. (Anyone who hasn’t seen Firefly yet, PLEASE don’t watch the movie first. It makes for a better reveal if you get to know these characters through the episodes first and understand how truly horrific the final scene is.)

    But I know what you mean about trouble being surprised. I think it’ll be harder for us as writers now that we’re understanding the tricks of the trade. It’s probably like being a magician. Things probably seem a little less magical than before.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I didn’t know there was a book!! And yes, that part in Serenity was amazing. I totally agree with you about being aware of the tricks and being able to pick up on them more now.

      • Jae says:

        I think the book is called “Darkly Dreaming Dexter.” It’s fairly similar to the first season, though with some different paths for secondary characters. The sequel is a bit more disturbing, and I haven’t read the third, though I need to.

  2. ddog13 says:

    I like surprises in stories but they rarely happen where I don’t expect it. Plots are typically predictable. I appreciate a well executed twist, however, though they are hard to come by.

  3. I think one mark of quality writing is when a writer who’s familiar with all the tricks of the trade is still surprised by what they read – or see on TV or in the movies. But it’s getting harder to find as studios go for lower risk ventures.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s absolutely true. That’s one of the things that I was hearing about today, actually, when I was at the Sleepy Hollow NYCC panel. They said it was a risky show but they found someone who would go for it, and people are really into it. Sometimes taking that leap of faith can really pay off!

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