How to Make a Reader Jump Out of His Footwear

When you’ve been reading a lot, you can tell what an author is thinking.  It doesn’t matter who the author is; whether it’s Brian Jacques, whose books you’ve been reading since age 7, or a new author you’d never heard of, you can tell what he or she will do next.  There are things that you can recognize as big writer no-nos, which if violated will mangle the author’s reputation for good writing.  Things like describing a scene vividly, then leaving it empty with nothing substantial pertaining to the plot.  If the story had a break between plot points that spanned three months, is the author going to describe each and every day in detail?  No, just the one at the end of the break.  Thus you can see when something big is coming.

And then there are things that are just common sense.  If the author says the character is dying, you know his or her death is coming up sometime during the book.  The author is not going to postpone the death scene until his or her trilogy is done if he or she announces that it’s coming in the first book.  Where and when requires more finely-tuned senses, but there are signs that can tell you these things.

Cliches always buy the biggest advertisements available.  Roadside billboards, stickers everywhere, T-shirts that say “IT’S COMING!” in Day-Glo orange capitals, messages in your French onion soup.  You can see these things coming from miles away, and it’s just because they’re cliche.  We learn to look for things we don’t want to see, and often we see them.  This is why I hate cliches so much.  You can see them coming, and when they arrive, you bury your face in your hand with a backhoe on steroids.  “Why, why, why?” you mutter, but still authors insist that they can’t succeed without copying someone else.

Plot twists are another thing that send up bright green flares in the dead of night.  Often, you’ll be able to see different things before they happen, which completely obliterates any hope of a shocking reveal on the author’s part.  When the reader reaches that section, he or she just says, “Oh, I knew that,” and goes on, not caring for the main character’s devastated feelings.

The best books are those written without these signs.  Though that is extremely hard to accomplish, it can be done.  The same idea is behind my feeling about these signs as is behind my feelings about book teasers and spoilers (read this post for more information): I want to be surprised.  And what is more surprising: a person jumping out of you from behind a solid partition in a chicken costume, or someone slowly approaching you in full daylight wearing bright pink?  (If you weren’t expecting anyone to come along in bright pink, perhaps you’d say the second option, but for the purpose of this post we’ll just go with the first.)  That’s right, the walking poultry is much more surprising.  So if you saw that person in bright pink slowly ambling toward you, admiring the scenery and giving you altogether too much time to examine him, would he surprise you if he reached you and calmly said, “Boo”?  That’s almost what the author is attempting when he or she tries to surprise a veteran reader, unless the author is really good at his or her job (which you ought to hope he or she is, or else you’ll be pretty disappointed in the book).

All I’m trying to say is that if you want to put one past the reader, spring it on ’em really suddenly.  Don’t give any inklings.  Don’t give any idea at all.  The best way to do this is to have no idea of it until you spring it on the readers, making them completely unaware as well.  Thus, you can’t be planning the book and must be a pantser through and through.  If you have even a shadow of a hint of a sliver of a thought, you’d better be really good at hiding your feelings.  Of course, you could always go for the “clamor in the east, attack in the west” approach, where you stick another gargantuan billboard right in the reader’s face advertising your planned surprise’s archenemy, and then make that vanish just before putting your planned idea front and center.

Thank you for listening, and feel free to comment and revise your writings accordingly.

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19 Comments

  1. This is a really good post, and a wonderful reminder. I have a feeling I can be too predictable in my novels, as much as I try not to be. Cliche and predictable plot twists are a pet peeve of mine, though. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and not cared about the character’s feelings, like you said, because I saw whatever the plot twist was coming from a mile away. I’m still teetering on the fine line between pantser and plotter, but I love it when my book surprises even myself. Thank you for reminding me to conceal my plot twists better. I’ll be sure to be more unpredictable in the future… and maybe utilize giant billboards a time or two. 😛

    (P.S. – found you from Charley R’s blog. :))

    Reply
    • Don’t worry; it was the hypocrite in me that wrote this post. I use billboards too much myself, and more often than not even my characters figure out what I’m thinking before I do. As you can see from that last sentence, I’m mostly a pantser, but often I just classify myself as a mental plotter. I can’t write plans down.

      Reply
      • Yeah, makes sense. A lot of the time I have to write down my plots so that I don’t forget them. They are really multi-faceted, so I like to have a copy of my mental notes so that if I lose some of the details in this brain of mine, I’ll have them in the future. I don’t usually forget them, but it’s more a precautionary measure just in case. It’s amazing that you’re able to remember all your plots; that’s a good thing.

      • Ha! The funny thing is that I’m a mental plotter, but have a horrible memory. If it’s really good, I figure I’ll remember it. If it’s something smaller than a plot, then I might write it down.

  2. Oh, and heads up for your U2 references in your sidebar, I just noticed them. The nod to their songs is seriously awesome. One of my favorite bands. 😀 (I’ve been raised listening to them, so it’s kind of expected.)

    Reply
    • *thumbs up.

      >.< Sorry for all the spam today. 😛

      Reply
      • *thumbs up back*

        Perfectly fine. Though it is odd that you managed to put all your comments on one post…

    • I’m glad someone appreciates them. I thought the references were corny at first, but might as well. For a while there I had a widget entitled “What’s it all about, Alfie?” which is only intelligible if you go way back into music (which I don’t, but I pretend).

      Reply
      • Not really sure why they all ended up on this post. I read your comment policy though, saw that you reply to comments, and checked back a couple times. Then I saw your U2 widget titles, and while I was here I figured I’d mention it. That’s pretty much why.

        Oh yeah. I don’t go too far back in music. But, thank goodness for Google.

      • Okey-dokey, fair ’nuff.

  3. Two things: 1. “messages in your French onion soup” is an absolutely brilliant phrase. 2. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut in this instance–he always tells you what he’s going to do before he does it, yet whenever it actually happens it’s still awesome.

    Reply
  4. Kurt Vonnegut is only one of the most awesomest writers ever. Fluh.

    Reply
  5. Charley R

     /  May 5, 2012

    Hmmm, I kinda agree here – thought I think a bit of subtle, well-hidden foreshadowing can work brilliantly. As in, you give them signs, but they don’t KNOW they’re signs because they only match up when the Big Surprise hits. Those are hard as hell to do, but I am determined to master the art of them, hee hee!

    However, scaring the readers out of nowhere is also tremendous fun xD

    Reply
  6. Sometimes I wonder how bored an author must be to write like that. *sigh*

    Reply
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