My coping mechanism for a very slow internet is to have a book by my computer and read while I wait. At the moment it’s “Clarice Bean Spells Trouble”, by Lauren Child, a cute and funny kids’ book.
I didn’t expect to be made to think while reading, but that’s what’s happened.
Clarice Bean is no good at spelling or at many other things, so she’s looking for her speicality. She takes up drama class, hoping that might be it. The teacher tells her: “The very hardest thing to do in acting is react”. As the teacher does this, she suddenly raises her arm as if to pinch someone. The children all react.
She says, “You see darlinks, how you all reacted then? Well, can you do it when you know what I’m going to do? It’s much harder to act surprised than be surprised.”
This is true for writing, also. You know what is going to happen (usually!) but you have to remember that the character doesn’t, and write their behaviour accordingly. A most egregious failure to do this is in “Nancy Drew: the Chocolate Covered Contest” by Carolyn Keene. I’m reading this one with the kids.
In it, a character wins a million dollars in a chocolate bar competition. Everyone reacts as if it is no big deal. Some go off to have lunch, others go for a walk. The winner herself professes to be stunned, but no one around her does anything but act as if she has just found ten cents on the ground.
The thing is; I knew there was something up, and I don’t think I should have at that point. She doesn’t get the million dollars, and the author knew that. So she didn’t write the correct reactions of her characters. She wrote them as if they knew there was no million bucks coming.
I started off this post thinking it was about surprise, but it’s not. It’s about reaction, which isn’t always surprise.
I’m not a big fan of the traditional surprise ending. I do think you should work hard to have an unexpected ending. Don’t just tell the story as it is likely to be told; add some angles to it which can send it off in other directions.
But the traditional surprise ending (it was all a dream, it was a boy not a girl, it was a dog not a human, she is actually dead all along, she killed her husband before he killed her, they are both killers…I could go on for while) destroy story for me for two reasons.
Firstly, the whole story has to be about the ending. It is the big idea and all else falls victim to it.
Secondly, you have to trick the reader in order to keep it a surprise, and I don’t like that. The reader needs to be taken along with you, not tricked by black covers over things which shouldn’t be covered.
I tend to put my surprises early. In “The Wrong Seat” we find out in the first sentence that Myra is dead. My grandfather thought this was very wrong. “You shouldn’t give away the ending,” he told me. “You should keep it as a surprise”. I said that the death was the beginning of the story, not the end, but he just shook his head as if I didn’t understand.