Fiction must fulfill certain expectations. It needs to feel original, fun, true-to-life, and causal rather than contrived. Otherwise, it’s not surprising—simply disappointing. At some point, though, fiction must overturn expectations instead of merely meeting them. If readers can predict everything to come, why continue reading?
Readers derive the greatest satisfaction from characters that astonish while remaining believable. Readers enjoy situations that make sense yet yield plausible outcomes no one could possibly predict.
Sounds great, but how do you accomplish that? It’s easier than it sounds. Millennia ago, Heraclitus said that “Character is fate.” In other words, who a character is—at the deepest essence—determines what she or he is capable of—what it’s possible to do or achieve. This observation about human nature generates several choices in terms of plotting plausibly but unpredictably.
a.) Create situations of such duress that character surprise themselves with their accomplishments, whether physical, moral, or psychological. Often, people can’t even meet their own expectations until circumstances demand that. If characters surprise themselves, they surprise those reading about their fate.
b.) Create characters of such complexity that they not only get themselves into complicated situations but also devise complicated strategies for ultimately achieving their goals. Characters shape destiny through their own choices.
c.) Create an environment that determines fate, whether because of cataclysm, status or even the protagonist’s own dreams (or nightmares). This source of possibility contains more choices than you might think. Whether futuristic, current, or historical, whether urban or rural, fictitious or factual, the trick is how setting impacts every one of your characters—but particularly your protagonist. This is less about geography than a combination of culture, luck, and constraint. How does that generate the surprise of true character?
Tip: Probe the commonplace and familiar deeply enough to summon true yet nevertheless surprising truths.
Each of these solutions requires pre-planning. Genuine surprise arises not from gimmicks but understanding character, plot, and setting so comprehensively that your fiction works from a solid foundation of credibility to yield what feels inevitable, but only after the climax. The very best fiction surprises even its own author.