Thank you, Pixabay!”Surprise Creates Best Sellers” by Joan Y. Edwards
Readers crave surprise. That’s the element that helps a reader stick to a story from the beginning to the very end. Therefore, every good story has the element of surprise. The books that incorporate the most surprises are best sellers.
A surprise is when something unexpected happens that is far from what the reader thought would happen. It adds tension and excitement and keeps the reader actively engaged and committed to your manuscript. Any surprise element must present an image in the mind of the reader. If a reader can’t see the image, they won’t see the connection you are counting on to make your story sell.
Many intriguing two-sentence pitches, hooks, loglines, and short summaries or trailers for books and movies, include or allude to one of these seven elements of surprise.
Beth Hill suggests that “you, the writer, include a revelation, introduce a new character, or devise an unforeseen event that is so unpredictable that it even surprises you.” So include unexpected consequences that surround your characters and have the element of surprise in them.
Tracy Richardson shows the powerful and surprising beginning of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Tracy points out that this first sentence hooks you right away and her next sentence is a perfect contradiction.
Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.
This beginning shows a good use of surprise.
Here are seven ways to add an element of surprise to your story:
Humor is when you exaggerate the unexpected and sometimes using the power of three to create a funny situation. Humor is shown in action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description.
Shock is when you exaggerate the unexpected so much that what happened is the complete opposite of what a reader thought was possible. It can be positive or negative.
Contradiction is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description that shows when opposite emotions are present at the same time in a character or situation.
Irony is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description which is the opposite of what a reader expects under similar circumstances.
Twist is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description which is the opposite of what a reader expects in this genre under similar circumstances. I think of a twist as having to do with the plot.
Revelation is when you reveal secrets or previously unknown information in your story.
Introduce a new character who is unpredictable in a way that adds tension and validity to the theme of your story.
Here are best-selling books that fill you with surprises:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
The Witness by Nora Roberts
The Firm by John Grisham
Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket by Barbara Park
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That TypebyDoreen Cronin, Betsy Lewin, and Randy Travis.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Readers crave surprise. Incorporate the elements of surprise in your stories and you will have a best seller because it has what readers crave!
Here are three stories from my life. I hope you enjoy them. Each of them contains at least one element of surprise.
The Expected and Unexpected
While I was in college during the summer months, my grandmother in Ohio loved for me to come unannounced. One Friday afternoon I left Western Carolina College in Cullowhee, North Carolina at 2:00 p.m. and arrived in Eaton, Ohio about 2:00 a.m. about five hours longer than I planned.
I knocked on Mother Meyer’s front door. Several minutes went by. I didn’t hear any sounds from inside the house. Then I heard a key turn as someone unlocked the door. As I stood there with my overnight case, a man I had never seen before peeked through the open door.
“Hello. Is Mother Meyer here?” I asked.
“No, she’s not.”
I proudly stated, “I’m her granddaughter, Joan.”
He looked at me like so what.
“My daddy is John Bernard Meyer.”
No signs of recognition on that man’s face. I thought maybe he’d know my Mother. Therefore, I tried again. “My mother is Ethel Meyer.”
The man with slightly balding hairline crossed his arms, “I don’t know them.”
I pointed down the hall to the first door on the left. “Mother Meyer usually lets me sleep in that room.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere. Visions of the nearby motel Mother and I stayed in with bugs crawling everywhere loomed in my head. My face grew white as a misty fog.
“I am John Campbell, your Aunt Betty’s husband. We got married last month.”
“Is Aunt Betty here?”
“Oh,” I said emotionally wilting into a small pile of rocks and sticky briars.
Then a warm smile donned his face. “Mother Meyer went to visit her daughter, Bea for the weekend. She’ll be back on Sunday. I see that you have your suitcase so you must have planned to spend the night. So come on in.”
I said, “Thank you very much.”
I moved quickly in the bedroom and closed the door. I shouted on the inside, “Thank you, Lord. I don’t ever want to do THAT again.”
That was my last surprise visit to my grandmother’s house.
Who was the most surprised person in this story?
Did I learn my lesson about surprise visits? My lesson came in two installments; one for each side of the family: Meyer and Bruffey.
Surprising Aunt Martha
One Friday in October, I decided to visit my Aunt Martha Bruffey in Kinston, North Carolina. She loved for me to surprise her by coming out of the bedroom in the morning. Aunt Martha and Uncle Vernon always left the doors unlocked so I would come in through the back door and sneak quietly into my cousins’ bedroom. I’d sleep on a cot there and in the morning, I’d come out of the bedroom into the hall. Aunt Martha would give me a great big hug and say, “What a nice surprise! I am so glad to see you.”
I drove nine or ten hours from Cullowhee, North Carolina to get there. I parked my gray 1950 Plymouth in the driveway and carried my overnight case around back to enter through the back door.
When I got around back, there was a new garage attached to the house. The back door I used to sneak through was hidden inside the breezeway structure that joined the house and the garage. The garage had a door so I twisted the doorknob to the right and pushed it, but it was locked and did not budge a millimeter.
Feeling a little frustrated, I walked to the side door, turned the knob, and pushed on it. Much to my dismay, it was locked, too.
But wait, there’s hope for me. There was still the possibility that the front door was not locked. When I turned the knob and pushed on it, it was locked tighter than a fat lady in a thin girdle.
I didn’t savor the idea of sleeping in my car because wire springs had sprung through the cushions and were not very comfortable. Surprising Aunt Martha wouldn’t be as much fun if I banged on the door and woke her up. She might be a bit grumpy. I didn’t want to scare my three girl cousins, so I stood in front of the four boys’ window on the side of the house. All four of them were sound asleep.
I took a deep breath and knocked on the window.
My oldest cousin woke and said, “My gosh, what’s going on out there?”
He shined a flashlight and saw me standing outside the house lonely and sad.
I spoke softly so I wouldn’t wake up Aunt Martha or the girls. “Please unlock the front door so I can come in.”
When the lock on the front door clicked, he opened it and said, “Joan, what a big surprise!”
“Not as big a surprise as I was to find all the doors locked.”
My cousins fixed up a cot for me so I’d have a place to sleep.
The next morning, Aunt Martha was thrilled to see me. She gave me a big hug and said, “What a nice surprise! It’s so good to see you.”
I was the most surprised person during this visit. The locked doors put a brake on future unannounced visits to relatives. But, I went many times after I told them I was coming.
What was the irony in this story?
Who did I surprise?
How do you think my grandmother and my aunt felt when I didn’t surprise them with visits again?
The Most Nervous Person at the Airport
One time, my friend, Henry, flew into Charlotte to help his boss determine the value of his latest acquisitions for a coin show. Henry asked me to meet him at the airport the next day. He told me his American flight to St. Louis took off at 2:10 p.m. and asked me to meet him about 1:00 p.m. so we could visit before his flight.
I left home an hour early to take notes on the body language of the most nervous person at the airport while I waited for Larry to arrive at his gate of departure.
Men, women, and children of varying ages amused me with their talk and their movements, but they was no sign of nervousness. Instead, moods of calm and excitement filled the air.
One o’clock came, but Henry didn’t.
One-fifteen, no Henry. I listened carefully to the messages over the intercom. None of them said, “Would Joan York please come to any agent at American Airlines?”
One-thirty, no Henry. I paced back and forth near the gate. I anxiously checked the long hallway for a man running to catch his flight. Everyone walked leisurely like they had more than enough time to get to their gate for take-off.
One-forty-five, no Henry. My heart beat a little faster.
As each moment passed, my thoughts went haywire. “What if something’s happened to him? What if he’s been in a car wreck?”
Two o’clock, no Henry. I patted my foot.
The gate clerk called passengers to board the airplane, no Larry. My saliva was so thick, it almost choked me.
The plane took off. It watched it taxi away from the building without Henry.
They changed the flight numbers on the bulletin board. I twisted my pen like it was a baton. I wrote below “Who was the most nervous person I observed at the airport?”
The answer was “Me.”
Henry called the next day.
I said, “Where are you? Are you okay?”
He said, “Early yesterday morning, my boss asked him to stay an extra day.”
My response was choppy and sharp, “Why didn’t you call me and let me know? Why didn’t you have the airlines page me?”
Henry said, “I called American Airlines and asked them to tell you.
“Humph! I listened with keen ears to all notices from American Airlines pages. None of them had my name in them.” I didn’t believe him.
“I’m going to take the same flight tomorrow. Will you meet me there at one o’clock?”
“No. The only place I’ll meet you is if you come to my house.”
He said, “That’s a fine way to treat a friend,” and hung up.
I never saw him again. He called wondering if he could spend a week with me while he went to a coin show.
I’m sure you guessed my answer. “Indeed not.”
All was not in vain because I learned many signs of nervousness and I had the wisdom to follow my gut feelings to end that relationship and any others in the future that made me nervous.
What emotions do you think usually precede, follow or go side-by side with nervousness?
What body language means nervousness to you?
What solves nervousness or makes it go away?
I hope my three stories helped you see how an element of surprise can hook the reader’s attention in a story. I hope it sparks an idea to use with your own stories. I think writers may crave surprise, as much as the readers. Let your imagination run around the possibilities. Readers crave surprise. Give it to them. Put multiple surprise factors in your manuscript. “If you put surprise in your story, readers will come.”
Believe in you and your writing. Celebrate all that you’ve accomplished: both the big steps and the little ones. References are below signature.
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