Surprise Me by Elle Keen
When I was younger, nine times out of ten my father fell asleep in middle of the movie we were watching at the local theater. As a child, I couldn’t understand how it was possible. We didn’t see that many and it was before we could watch movies at will a few months after they came out. How could he bear to miss an instant of the movie? But when I became a parent and found myself doing the same, I understood. Some movies, no matter how much sleep I’ve gotten, force me to nap. Others, no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten, keep me on the edge of my seat and wide awake.
For that matter – how is it that some movies make me want to lose the DVD after the first viewing, while others can be watched nearly as many times as a toddler wants without making me beg for bamboo to shove under my fingernails?
Obviously a tight story and good acting have a lot to do with it. But there are plenty of well acted, great stories that, I’m sorry to say, aren’t something I’m going to remember for any length of time even if they don’t put me to sleep. And there are others, that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, really aren’t so-great movies, but everyone is talking about them. Why?
The little moments of surprise. (Or in the case of those not-so-great movies, the huge moment of surprise. The event we didn’t see coming. The twist we want all our friends to see because we want to know if they saw it coming. The “I see dead people” moment.)
Those moments light up our brains and force us to pay attention. They don’t just go from A to B, they go from A to B via 8 with a detour to Hawaii along the way.
It’s the touching deathbed scene of a young boy losing his mother, running out of the hospital to escape his grief and being sucked up by a spaceship. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2014) From the same movie: our villain is taunting the good guys, delivering his typical bad guy monologue and is about to blast our guys and the world into tiny pieces when the good guy starts singing “Ooh Child” and challenges our villain to a dance off. In another movie, our villain is going into his monologue, we zoom in to better appreciate his majesty as he talks about how we’re lower life forms, when – bam! – he disappears from view. The camera pans back to show us the Hulk has him by the leg and is slamming him back and forth into the ground. (The Avengers 2012)
In each case, we think we’re getting a typical action scene and our brain starts to pay less attention (after all we’ve seen it before) and they go and toss something so unexpected we’re snapped back into the moment and the movie once more has our full attention.
As authors, we can – and should – apply this to our writing. Readers who are kept guessing (in a good way) continue to turn pages and that should always be our goal. Those little moments lead our readers to place our books on the ‘keeper shelf.”
So how can you insert this magical solution into your stories? Join Elle for her upcoming FF&P workshop, Adding the Unexpected: Subverting Reader Expectations, from April 13-26. By dissecting popular movies and a few books, you’ll discover simple things you can do to keep your audience engaged and coming back for more. Cost for FF&P members is $10. Non-members, $15. Register here.
A longtime member of RWA, Elle Keen enjoys writing paranormal, fantasy, and futuristic stories and since she’s normally got a fairy or two hanging around, unexpected things tend to happen.