How do you surprise your readers?
I use two methods: Wilhelm’s Law and the Agatha Christie Technique.
Wilhelm’s Law: throw away your first three ideas.
What this means:
- Your first idea is generally the most obvious one. It’s been done.
- Your second idea is generally a response to the first. Because most stories have been done before, this is the first plot “twist” that comes up…for almost everyone.
- The third idea is a stretch, but it’s still pretty logical. The audience will go, “Yeah, I see that.”
- The fourth idea (sometimes this state takes more than four ideas) is the place where you surprise yourself as a writer. Yes! Aha! Oh, that’s terrible and I must do it!
The fourth idea is the perfect place to be. Let’s say you want to write a story about zombies.
- Zombies take over the world and try to kill everyone. Ehhhh.
- Zombies take over the world and it’s a metaphor for social ills of some sort. Okay, if it’s done well, or if it’s done first, or if it has really engaging characters in it.
- Zombies take over the world but stop if you love them truly. Warm Bodies.
- Zombies take over the world but there’s a cure, only it makes you the slave of a half-zombie fascist. Z Nation.
Guess which one of these concepts involves a giant wheel of cheese rolling down the street. The fourth idea is where the audience goes, “Where do you get your ideas?!?”
The Agatha Christie Technique: identify a reader assumption and undermine it.
Kris Rusch jokes that Agatha Christie just picks the least likely person to have done it. But I had to wonder–how do you pick the least likely person?
Some assumptions about a mystery that Christie undermined (spoiler alert):
- One or two characters are the murderer(s)–>The Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects helped murder the dude.
- The narrator is a good guy, a kind of sidekick for the detective–>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator did indeed do it, cleverly concealing this as he goes.
- The people who get framed didn’t do it–>The Murder at the Vicarage, in which the murderers frame themselves, then “reveal” that they were framed.
- A pattern of clues is meaningful–>The ABC Murders, in which a murderer kills several other people in order to make it look like a deranged alphabetical serial killer is on the loose.
Readers tend to focus on the method of solving a crime (“the little grey cells”) rather than the method of choosing what crime that what characters commit–as a writer must do.
Mystery isn’t the only genre you can do this with.
So let’s say we have a romance, which is sometimes seen as the most locked-in, predictable of genres. You can’t mess with the falling in love bit, OR the Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending. Those aren’t just assumptions but expectations; if you don’t deliver those things, readers are going to be pissed. My examples are going to be a bit dated here, because I really, really love old romantic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out how they work.
- The hero is tall, dark, and handsome–>The hero is a phenomenally ugly man with a big nose but a talent for poetry. Cryano de Bergerac.
- The hero is an honorable man–>The hero is an airhead. The Scarlet Pimpernel.
- The hero falls in love at first sight–>The hero sneers at the heroine and ignores her for the first quarter of the book, then insults the holy crap out of her. Pride and Prejudice.
- There are some books that even sneak an end-run around violating the HEA/HFN rule: The hero falls in love and they live happily ever after–>Both lovers, who never even had sex, die, but their kid falls in love and lives on. Les Miserables.
You can’t just overturn the assumption and do the exact opposite of what it proposes. That’s when you end up with “the butler did it wait what that was random” kinds of stories, which overturn assumptions but don’t meet expectations. The story still has to feel meaningful. If you set up a dilemma between two lovers, for example, making your heroine instead choose a third can seem completely random–readers have invested in the two lovers, not the third. And having one of them die so the heroine can conveniently choose the other, well, whatever.
But if you combine both methods and have two men who look identical in a love triangle, then have one of them sacrifice himself to save the other, because he’ll be able to give the heroine a better life, well, that’s A Tale of Two Cities, and if Dickens were still alive, he’d still be making bank off of that.
Click here for an example of a killer plot twist in action.