Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bad Surprises

Lately, I've been reading a lot of YA mysteries, and I've been finding them to be a little unsettling. The big reveals are coming across like a train wreck in the middle of the ocean. Yes, I know you want to surprise your readers, but you also don't want to subject them to an alien invasion in the middle of a historical romance. (Unless you've touted your novel as historical science fiction, which would be really cool.)

Let me try to explain using the greatest story of all time...the Star Wars saga. (I'm going to assume you've seen the movies, and if you haven't, go watch them now. I'll wait.)

The Star Wars franchise has perhaps one of the biggest reveals in movie history. Do you remember that moment when you found out Darth Vader was actually Luke's father? My mouth dropped all the way into my lap, but when I thought back to previous scenes, I said to myself, "Wow, I can totally see it." 

  • In the vague way Obie Wan and Yoda spoke about Luke's father and how Darth Vader killed him
  • How Darth Vader and Luke always seemed to sense when the other was near
  • Why Luke had such strong Jedi powers
All the evidence was right there, hiding under my nose. We'll done, Mr. Lucas!

Now, on the flip side, here are examples of bad surprises:

  • Ann has been acting completely normal, then we find out she was date-raped last weekend.
  • Sue has her list of suspects narrowed down to the janitor, her next door neighbor and her ex-boyfriend when we find out the killer was actually a girl from another town, someone we've never met who has no reason to kill the victim.
  • Carol is an ordinary girl in an ordinary town recovering from bulimia when we find out she is actually a robot.

Wow, these are all pretty shocking scenarios, and the reason they are shocking is because they are unexpected. But not in good this-just-got-really-intense way, more-so in a this-is-completely-unbelievable way.

We want to see Ann unravel and then we want to wonder why. If she went from party girl to shy girl or quit cheer to hang with the stoners, our curiosity would be piqued. We would still be surprised to find out she was date-raped, but it would flow seamlessly into the story.

For Sue, when she finds out the murderer is no one she ever suspected, we feel as duped as she does. Yes, it's possible that the victim was killed by some illogical psycho stranger, but it's not very likely.

And Carol, well, she just needs to figure out what kind of story she's in, a contemporary coming of age or a paranormal romance. When I sit down to read a book, I want to know what I'm reading. I don't want it to switch in the middle.

Good writing is making the unbelievable, believable. And for me, a lot of this happens during the editing phase. In my first draft, I have the path laid, where I want my characters to go and what I want them to say and do. When I go through it the second or third (or eighth) time, I make sure that I've given my characters reasoning for their actions, and I drop in subtle little clues to my big reveal. I want my readers to go, "No way!" and then, "But I can totally see it."

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