29 July 2011

Pulling Out the Big Surprise

I watched the film Bridge to Terabithia a few nights ago, while not a new film it’s the first time I’ve seen it.  There is a part about two-thirds through when Jess visits the museum with his teacher.  He’s promised his father he would do more chores, and when he asked his mother that morning if he could go on the field trip, she was sleepy and mumbled a reply that he took to be ‘yes’.  As he returns home there were a few scenarios going through my mind for the next scene, and I was thrilled to be totally wrong-footed. 
So often when watching a film or TV program I’ve guessed the next scene, and it’s all rather predictable.
That got me thinking about plot, and the importance of surprising the reader.
We all know about the importance of conflict and raising the stakes for our protagonist, and in the films/books where I can guess the next scene it isn’t that the writer hasn’t raised the stakes, but that I’ve guessed the outcome.
It won’t necessarily stop me reading, but I am more inclined to go and do something else. 
What we don’t want to do is throw in a lot of red herrings that have nothing to do with the plot.  I dislike that more than guessing correctly what happens next.
Yes the parents in the film were worried, they were probably annoyed as well, but the surprise came from another direction completely.  They were totally in character, but I was looking in the wrong place for the surprise/shock when it came.
When a story unfolds exactly as we expect, it becomes boring.  The person running away from an attacker who heads upstairs.  COME ON.  Once you get to the top floor there’s no-where to go.
When I thought of what happened in Bridge to Terabithia it made sense, the clues were there, but the writer had added other reasonable pieces of information that made his eventual direction a surprise.
Taking the first plot turn we come up with probably means we are going down the boring route.  We have to work on it and come up with a few options before we find the one that is going to make our readers say, ‘Wow I didn’t see that coming.’
I can still feel the grin on my face at reading an OMG!!!!!!  pencilled in next to a plot turn on some feedback from a critique partner.  I had managed to take the story in a direction they weren’t expecting. 
Our task is to do that again, and again, so the reader is emotionally involved in our story rather than just plodding along until they find something better to do.

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