By Amy Bennett
A good surprise in a novel is like a good joke. The twist ending satisfies the setup, but goes in a direction the audience didn’t foresee.
Because surprises are tricky to pull off, whether the surprise comes relatively early or at the end of a story, often I see writers who withhold important information from the reader. The goal is to create the feeling of surprise in the reader when the information is finally revealed, but that feeling of surprise comes at a huge cost.
In a novel, part of the pleasure for a reader is having access to the character or characters’ deepest internal thoughts and feelings. When done well, this access is an intimate act, when the reader can know the character deeply, perhaps even more deeply than the character knows himself. If you withhold important information about the character in the hopes of a dramatic reveal (for example, that your main character is the mother of another character, or she is having an affair, or she is alcoholic, or she is transgender), you’ve broken this sacred covenant between the reader and the character. Unless the narrative makes it clear that the character is unreliable, their perspective should include this important information.
The trick is to be subtle with secrets. Everything your character says and does is colored by their history, their personality, their goals, their fears, and it is through this lens that they see the world. If your main character’s perspective is completely missing some vital aspect of their personality (e.g., their child, their secret affair, their desire to drink, their feelings about gender) then their entire perspective becomes questionable, even unreliable. Yet you don’t need to have them focused on this aspect of their life that you’d like to reveal to the reader when the time is right.
Instead, give subtle hints, for example the way your character reacts to seeing someone else’s child, if she is a mother but for whatever reason you wish to withhold the reveal of that information until later in the story. Or the untethered guilt that your character feels when speaking to her partner, and maybe the way she checks her phone too often, waiting on a message from someone who turns out to be her lover. It doesn’t have to be obvious that your character, say, really needs a drink, but he can show signs that he’s uncomfortable. And a moment of hesitation outside of the Men’s and Women’s public bathrooms will say a lot to a discerning reader about how your character feels about gender.
If you’ve allowed subtle hints to build up, then when the reveal happens, the reader can have that feeling of surprise, but the surprise comes as a deepening of the reader’s relationship to the character. The movie Fight Club has a great reveal, for example, or consider Luke’s father’s identity being revealed in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Because the audience can look back and realize that the hints were there the whole time, the surprise can come as an “aha” that clarifies and gives greater depth to the entire story.
Amy is a critically acclaimed and agented science fiction novelist who enjoys helping writers get their careers going. She can steer you toward the agents and publishers who best fit your work and answer your questions about writing and publishing with honesty and empathy.