This week: Adding Surprise to DramaEdited by: Joy The Masked Ghoul
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“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
“Austen knew that surprises make stories more interesting. You can't be afraid of them, or you might miss out.”
“Surprises are everywhere in life. And they usually come from misjudging people for being less than they appear.”
“What we write should surprise us, the way life surprises us.”
Hello, I am Joy The Masked Ghoul , this week's drama editor. This issue is about using the surprise element in fiction.
Thank you for reading our newsletters and for supplying the editors with feedback and encouragement.
Please, note that there are no rules in writing, but there are methods that work for most of us most of the time.
The ideas and suggestions in my articles and editorials have to do with those methods. You are always free to find your own way and alter the methods to your liking.
Welcome to the Drama newsletter
For an author, holding the reader’s attention all the way to the end of a well-written fiction is the gift and the bane at the same time because as stories vary, so do the readers. Then, since the elements of curiosity, anticipation, interest and especially suspense work so well, why would we need to add surprise to our fiction?
I would say surprise is another tool, the one a reader probably didn’t think of. Then, most great novels and scripts contain surprises, for the reason that, with all the books available nowadays and the authors using most of the known elements well enough, the readers usually can detect where the story is going and where it will end. This may lull them into a kind of tedium even if they keep on reading. On the other hand, a well-placed, fitting, and not overdone surprise will perk them up.
What can such surprises be? Let’s think of the ways we can throw in a surprise factor into our fictional stories.
• A Character’s Unexpected but Explainable Reaction:
What if we try to detect what the anticipation is and throw in its opposite?
For example, take Alexander the Great and his teacher Aristotle. We expect Aristotle to be proud of Alexander's conquests from his earlier praises of his pupil; however, what if Aristotle is shocked and dismayed with Alexander’s warring behavior? After all, a power of physical might was not what he taught his pupil. Aristotle’s feelings can be an element of surprise if we are writing such a historical drama based on facts or even a made-up everyday story.
• A Secret Not Revealed Earlier:
This secret can be known to the readers or not. It can be known only between a few characters but not mentioned before in the text. It may surprise all the characters but not the reader or it may surprise the reader but not the characters. That secret can be the story’s main secret, light or dark, which may only be revealed during the climax or the ending, as in Chinatown’s main character’s father-husband. Or that secret could be the character readers suspect to be the bad guy, who ends up being a good guy if not the best, or the one as the best who holds high everyone’s welfare.
• A Surprise Offered for Its Shock Value:
This type of a surprise can show up anywhere in the book or the movie. An example can be when the audience first sees the main character Michael as a woman in Tootsie. Or when the monster comes out of a person’s chest in the horror movie Alien.
An author should be very careful with this kind of a surprise, which is usually combined with suspense and relief. Such a surprise after its revelation, as all other surprises, should be explainable and should connect to the main storyline in some way.
• Classic or Cliché Setup with an Unusual Surprise Payoff:
This cliché or classic set-up ploy is usually done on purpose, to foster the surprise to be discovered sometime in the story. An example to it can be in the Truman Show and the humdrum life of the kind-hearted insurance salesman and ambitious explorer, Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey). The surprise comes when Truman and the audience find out that they are in a reality show, and Truman’s town is not a real town.
The main caveat in adding surprises to a story is in not overdoing it. Startling the readers or the audience more than once has its consequences in acclimation and tastelessness. In fact, surprises should come sparingly, and if an author dares to insert more than one in the same story, those surprises should be totally opposite of one another and should be in different parts and places in the story.
A properly-placed, good or bad surprise with or without any heightened tension that adapts and works well with the storyline, and not only for an effect, can spark a delightful reaction all on its own. This is the reaction to aim for when we plan using any surprise element in our fiction.
May all our surprises be delightful!
Until next time!
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This Issue's Tip: A trap could be a good element in a story.A trap is a place where the character doesn't want to be, but this isn't necessarily a physical place.
Feedback for "Satire in Dramatic Fiction"
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I don't know how it came to be that I've never read Dickens, but I've now added a couple of his books to my list.
Good Luck with your reading. It may be delightful and difficult. Even though I had read two or three of them in school, I am finding so many beautiful angles to Dickens's writing. In fact, I think he is mesmerizing.
I think you nailed it: True satire never gets stale. Writing satire is an "art." Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Steph. I like satire, especially when I read it in better writers' works, better writers other than myself. It is a difficult art to master.
I think you hit on it several times, but if it's indeed a dramatic story, it must be subtle. I had a writing professor once say on this subject, "if 2/3rds of the readers don't miss it, you're doing it wrong." Probably not an exact quote, but the meaning holds.
Save the laugh out loud lines for a humor piece. You want these to be a snort or a little chuckle.
An astute professor you had there. Yes, a humor piece entertaining, but true satire is priceless with a higher quality. Thanks for the input.
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