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Surprise! Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension and Plot Twists


Beyond the pages of fiction, I hate surprises. Their timing is invariably inconvenient, and more often than not I could do without the surprise itself (Surprise! Flat tire!). But in fiction, I love surprises. I love plot twists, betrayals, and the resonant resolution of building tension. Fictional surprises are on my mind just now because of a question in last week’s I Should Be Writing podcast, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Plausibility as the Foundation of Surprise

Regardless of the story, irrespective of the genre, and notwithstanding the nature of the surprise, nothing kills a surprise faster than implausibility. We all know that moment in bad fiction when we exclaim “Oh, c’mon!” and throw up our hands. It is always a moment of the writer’s laziness, when characters and their choices become subordinate to the needs of unfolding action. In good fiction, those relationships should be reversed: it is characters and the choices that they make which drives action.

Consider one of the greatest “surprises” in fantasy: Gollum’s attack on Frodo above the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King. This one moment is such a significant surprise that it gave rise to an entire trope in fantasy, that of eucatastrophe: a deus ex machina event that reverses certain failure and saves the day. Now, as a critical or structural descriptor, I hate eucatastrophe. I think it’s a false device, which mischaracterizes what is actually happening in the story. But Gollum’s attack nevertheless remains a pivotal, climactic, surprising, and satisfying moment.

The resonance of that moment stems from the plausibility of the characters’ actions. That Frodo would refuse to destroy the ring is the first “surprise” – after all, he is the noble hero and his refusal is the explicit failure of his quest (see my earlier comments on that score here). But Frodo’s failure is not, actually, a surprise. Tolkien has been establishing its plausibility for three whole books by that point. Noble Frodo’s entire arc culminates in that one moment, when he betrays his own values.

Similarly, Gollum’s attack – when he “inadvertently” saves the day – is perfectly plausible given what Tolkien has shown us of his nature. We believe that Gollum would do it, and that makes the “surprise” possible. If Gollum had tried to reason with Frodo, it would have been patently out of character and therefore thoroughly implausible.

When I look for ways to model “surprises” in my own writing, I tend to look at the mystery genre. The classic “whodunit” structure relies upon establishing a logical, plausible chain of clues which lead us to the “surprising” culprit. In some cases, the reader discovers clues alongside the sleuth and the mystery becomes a game of wits. The surprise remains plausible because we are given all of the tools to solve the mystery ourselves.

In other cases, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this type of divination is impossible because the author hides essential facts. But just because they are hidden from the reader does not, automatically, make them implausible. Instead, it puts pressure on the hero (in this case Sherlock Holmes) to convince us that he was aware of them all along. It is Holmes’ charisma and plausibility as a character that prevents his revelations from turning into flat statements of “Oh, by the way, here are essential facts that you had no way of knowing.”

Consider Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It remains a polarizing book to this day, precisely because its surprising solution (which relies on an unreliable narrator) flouts the “accepted” conventions of the mystery genre. And yet, the surprise and the mystery itself remain satisfying (at least for me) because they remain perfectly plausible within the world established by the story. While the surprise forces a re-evaluation of the preceding text, one cannot say “I don’t buy it”.

If a surprise is implausible, if the groundwork has not been laid to make it “natural”, then it will fail. Failure does not mean that the audience isn’t surprised: it means that the audience throws up its hands, and rejects the narrative outright. This is a much more damning criticism, and one that consigns the story to ultimate irrelevance.

Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension

Surprises and plausibility are indelibly linked to tension. A balance must be struck between establishing the plausibility of an incipient surprise, and telegraphing its arrival. Managing that tension is key to maintaining the reader’s engagement with the story. We want the reader on the edge of their seat. So how to get that? I believe the trick lies in information flow.

There is a difference between what the reader knows, and what a character knows. Slasher films love this tension-building device, and for good reason: if we are engaged with a character and we know that there’s a knife-wielding lunatic hiding in their closet, our natural instinct is to warn them (I admit to yelling at the TV during episodes of Criminal Minds). The tension in these scenes works because while we know what is coming, we share at least some of the character’s ignorance: we don’t know when the knife will fall. This selective knowledge keeps us antsy, and makes us jump when the knife finally flashes.

Outside of the over-exaggerated tension of the slasher flick, however, the same dynamic is at play. Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Books of the Fallen features a dizzying array of political betrayals. But by telling the story from multiple perspectives, Erikson is able to show the reader the unfolding betrayals long before they are enacted. We know – in a loose, general sense – what is coming and what our heroes are ignorant of, and so when the moment arrives it produces a satisfying release of tension.

This same effect can be even more subtle, through the manipulation of reader emotions. In Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Veldt” we don’t need to know, exactly, what will happen to feel tense or be surprised. Instead, Bradbury builds a gradual sense of foreboding, a conviction that the other shoe will drop. What that means, what it entails, and when it will happen is not apparent. The onus of plausibility is spread across characters, events, environment, and most importantly the reader’s emotion. If the resolution of that tension did not satisfy the foreshadowed foreboding, then it would ultimately be an unsatisfying story: we would feel cheated.

The subtler manipulation of reader expectations relies on careful psychology, and an understanding of the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is controversial precisely because its surprise subverts those expectations. John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts similarly relies on the reader’s familiarity with science fiction television tropes. Without the reader’s pre-existing familiarity, it becomes much harder for the reader to be one step ahead of the heroes…and as a result, the reader’s satisfaction will be diminished.

Fictional Surprises and a Rare (for me) Sports Metaphor

In essence, what this means is that readers don’t want real surprises. The true surprise, the one that we never see coming, lacks the foundation that makes it plausible. It is the flyball out of left field that hits us in the head and gives us a concussion.

By contrast, a good fictional surprise builds off of the foundations established in the preceding text. It builds off of the character, their personality, the trajectory of their narrative arc, and the structure of the overall story. If a true surprise is the concussive flyball, then a good surprise is the flyball out which the astute reader sees coming, that makes them race for the fences and leap to catch it just before it becomes a home run. It isn’t the inciting moment (the bat hitting the ball) that makes the surprise satisfying, nor is it the outfielder’s surprising leap. The surprise, and the satisfaction that derives from it, is the inevitable slap of the baseball hitting the outfielder’s leather mitt.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. dkent #

    The best kind of surprise is one that has had clues all along, but the reader doesn’t see it coming then, when it does, he slaps his head as he realizes he’s missed it. Can’t think of a literary example, but the movie, THE SIXTH SENSE, comes to mind.

    June 19, 2012
    • Yeah, The Sixth Sense does an amazing job of this. What’s equally interesting, I think, is the way that M. Night Shyamalan’s later films consistently tried for the same effect, but fell short…more often than not because the twists were either implausible or because we didn’t care enough about the characters to establish any kind of preceding tension.

      June 19, 2012
  2. Pretty nice breakdown for how surprise works or doesn’t work. I think the technique you talk about here is suited best for the novel or perhaps a TV arc. The problem with surprise in short story and film is the necessity of narrative economy — there are fewer places to hide or situations to distract.

    June 21, 2012
    • Thanks! That’s a great point. Is the only difference the compression of available space? Or does it otherwise affect the structure of the story/surprise?

      June 22, 2012

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