Deep Story thought of the day. Surprise. Surprise in some form is intrinsic in story. “I went to the grocery store and I bought a gallon of milk.” That ain’t a story. That’s a flat line. When that line bends, the story begins. “I went to the grocery store, and my old high school physics teacher was there, holding a cashier hostage.” That line just bent.
It was a minor surprise, simply because one does not expect to see that on a trip to the grocery store. Which is my point today. Surprise only exists within EXPECTATION. I have read SO many stories and scripts from people who think they have this huge surprise for the reader, only for me to tell them it meant nothing. Why? Because they didn’t cultivate my expectations.
Writing a story is laying out a path. The clearer the path, the more the reader, or listener, can predict the next stepping stone. A poorly crafted story leaves you uninterested, because you simply can’t see the path. What will the next step bring? A stepping stone? Grass? A grizzly bear? I could be any of them because you’re not being led toward expectation. A grizzly bear showing up in that story ain’t really surprising, because you haven’t been led to believe any particular thing will come next.
Great stories twist in similar ways. The audience expects A. You give them D. Maybe you give them K if you’re really good. Probably never give them X though.
What am I talking about? A great surprise is one that you never expected, but can trace back through the story and see as INEVITABLE. So A to D is not a huge surprise. D happens, you were NOT expecting that, but the writer cleverly left clues B and C lying around. You didn’t pay attention to them particularly much, but now with the surprise revealed, you see a hidden path through the woods, the actual path the writer had you on. As you can tell, to get a reader to trace the true path from K all the way back to A is a big ask. Some of the very best twists in fiction can do that. But working back from X?
That’s Sixth Sense level mastery.
So when you craft story today, ask yourself what expectation am I setting up, and how can I best subvert that expectation for the effect I’m aiming to achieve.