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Novel Writing 5


This is the fifth excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps to Success by Evan Marshall

We are running several excerpts from this title from the A & C Black Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.

Surprising the Reader

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading a novel is being surprised. I love nothing more than to be shocked by a revelation or story development. I think most readers feel this way.

Surprises in a novel remind me that there’s more to the story than I thought and that I’d better stay on my toes. A good surprise – one I never saw coming – makes me sit up and pay attention. Often these surprises come just at the moment when the story is starting to even out, when things need to be shaken up a little – or a lot.

That’s no coincidence. Skilful writers know to place these surprises at strategic places in their novels to prevent the story from flagging or sagging or growing dull. I remind the writers I represent to make a point of inserting these shockers, though I am aware that the writers who plot their novels before writing them are able to make better use of this device. When you plan your story and can see the big picture, it’s easier to determine what these surprises should be and to anticipate them by planting any necessary material earlier in the book. Writers who don’t plot first – who make things up as they go along – must in effect surprise themselves at the same time they’re surprising the reader. For these writers the shocker must come completely out of the blue; nearly always they must go back in the story and revise extensively to make provision for the surprise to come later.

With the Novel Writing plan you’re plotting your novel ahead of time and can tinker with your surprises till they’re the best you can come up with. As for where to put them, that’s easy:

Surprise no. 1 comes at the end of the beginning.

Surprise no. 2 comes at the exact middle of the novel.

Surprise no. 3 comes at the end of the middle.

What’s in a surprise?

What, specifically, is a surprise? First of all, it occurs in an action section. To be precise, it’s the failure in an action section, and as failures go, it’s pretty spectacular.

A surprise is a major, shocking story development that throws a whole new light on the lead’s situation and makes matters worse in terms of her reaching her goal. A surprise can take the form of:

  • A discovery your lead makes
  • An action by another character, that affects your lead
  • Revelation of new information that is truly bad news for your lead
  • An event that has a negative impact on your lead's situation

A surprise raises the stakes for the lead and makes the reader sit up and take notice. It always occurs as the failure of an action section, and always concerns the lead’s main story line.

A surprise must be believable in the light of what’s happened in the story so far. It must also directly relate to the lead’s pursuit of the story goal. Finally, the three surprises should get progressively worse.

Let’s say your lead, Hank, has come to see his estranged wife to beg her not to divorce him. He argues that a divorce would be the worst thing in the world for their five-year-old son. At this point Hank’s wife informs him the child isn’t his. Surprise!

Let’s try it for Sara’s story. This will be an action section with no visible opposition. Sara has set a section goal of beginning to get her life back to some semblance of normality after convincing herself that, though Lance may be harbouring secrets – perhaps of infidelity – being a member of the KKK isn’t one of them. She’s decided to let go of the whole issue, put it out of her mind, though there’s no saying what the future holds for their marriage.

In the car park near the station where Sara parks her Jeep, she nears her car and is so preoccupied that she walks out in front of another car. Its driver swerves and hits Sara’s Jeep, which explodes, killing the driver of the other car. Someone had planted a bomb in Sara’s car. Surprise!

Make the last section of your beginning an action section and build in this kind of act-ending curtain – shocking, grabbing, dramatic.

Fifth excerpt from Novel Writing: 16 Steps for Success, Second Edition by Evan Marshall, published by A & C Black at £12.99.

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt

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© 2004, 2000 Evan Marshall