What astonishes you enough to stop and notice your world? It could be the ivy shadows on the bricks at dusk. Or a shining moment of generosity from your cheapskate brother. Or a hideous smirk of jealousy in this woman who’s always kind.
Surprise happens when the outcome contradicts the assumptions or expectations. Who knew that evening light could make the house look so exquisite? Or that Mike could be so great, or Eve so naughty?
Aristotle said that “the secret to humor is surprise.” It’s also the secret to momentum. If readers can anticipate everything ahead, why continue reading?
Forward propulsion depends on wondering what happens next and worrying whether the character who magnetizes you will make the right choice. Surprise intensifies both wondering and worrying.
According to Dr. LeeAnn Renninger, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, “Research shows that surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent, which explains why we love positive surprises and hate negative surprises.”
Whenever you astound your reader, you intensify emotion. Astound your character also ramps up emotional response, in turn, eliciting an even greater emotional response from the reader rooting for—or against—that character.
But why limit surprise to plot and characterization? Why not startle readers by planting it everywhere? In your syntax, your imagery, what you omit and what you include.
For example, here’s Richard Powers from Galatea 2.2 on a highly advanced computer attempting to grasp human communication:
She balked at metaphor. I felt the annoyance of her weighted vectors as they readjusted themselves, trying to accommodate my latest caprice. You're hungry enough to eat a horse. A word from a friend ties your stomach in knots. Embarrassment shrinks you, amazement strikes you dead. Wasn't the miracle enough? Why do humans need to say everything in speech’s stockhouse except what they mean?”
Ashwin Sanghi observes that “Surprise is when a prime minister is assassinated during his speech. Suspense is when an assassin lurks while the prime minister speaks. Balancing surprise and suspense is the job of the thriller writer.” Absolutely. Except that the principle applies not just to authors of thrillers but to every novelist.
In the reality, there’s no correlation between surprise and causality. In fiction, though, set up makes surprise plausible. Prepare the stage for surprise so readers can simply enjoy that 400 % increase in emotion without feeling manipulated by the improbable, convenient, contrived, forced, or false.