The Element of Surprise

One of the most powerful tools any writer has at their fingertips is the element of surprise. This element can make or break a story. Readers don’t want to close a book and think, “Ah, yes. I called every last bit of it.” They want that plot twist to smack them in the face. They want to be so engaged in trying to figure out the surprise that they can’t put the book down. You don’t want all your reviews to read ‘predictable’. If you’re going to take the time to add in a major plot twist — be it a secret, a reveal, or a betrayal, then do it right.

Give the reader options, and make all the options just as believable. If you’re trying to find the murderer, or you’re trying to work out who betrayed who: Don’t single out one character and provide irrefutable hints way before the big moment. Lead your reader on a merry chase. Give them a million hints for three or four different characters, and then make it a random character that no one had suspected. Convince them one of your selected suspects is innocent and then rip that belief away. Don’t make one character any more believable than another till you’re ready to do the reveal.

Be subtle with your clues. Nine times out of ten when the clues pointing to someone are blatantly obvious, then they’re not the ones that did it. So you might be thinking this is providing a surprise or a twist, but it’s not. It is going to disappoint your readers, though. They want something intriguing and complex. They don’t want to feel like they just spent hours reading this whole book, when you actually wrapped it up in the first quarter or half, and they could have stopped then. Avoid making your readers feel like they wasted their time.

Leave the reader hanging. Have a character that you “killed”, but they’re not actually dead? Don’t say they’re not dead in the next sentence, or the next paragraph, or even the next page. Draw that out. Make that a huge surprise when they come back. Shock people. There’s a lot of things that a writer can play with in scenarios like this. Don’t miss that opportunity. Have some fun with it. Let your reader have time to work up some feelings about it. Don’t present every bit of information you’ve got right away, drag the process out. Make the reader have to read the whole book to get the full picture.

No one is going to read a mystery novel if they can solve the mystery in the first fifty pages. You’re not going to get a return reader if your fantasy novel’s plot twist is bland and not actually a twist. If the hero/heroine of your romance novel has a secret and their partner finds it out right away, your readers are going to be disappointed. Play with your plot. Make your book a maze, and let your readers hit some dead ends.

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