Pausing between reviews (and other on-going projects) to think about how a plot needs to have some element of surprise. This might sound like stating the obvious, but if it was something I knew as a reader, it took me longer to work it out as a writer.
It started when a fellow writer commented that one of my drafts ‘lacked twists and turns’. He explained (referring to Robert McKee’s Story which – oops- I still haven’t read) that the idea is to create a set of expectations and then have the opposite occur. I think up till then I’d concentrated on building up a narrative, layering in subplots and constructing characters so that the outcome would feel right, ignoring the fact that the reader doesn’t want the obvious to happen. I mean in The Eiger Sanction (yes, a film, but the same applies) it would have been no surprise if the killer had been the German climber, but it was a heck of a lot better (though not for Clint!) that the baddie was in fact his oldest chum.
But there are surprises and surprises. If the author simply pulls a plot rabbit out of the hat – a device or character that hasn’t even been hinted at before, or could not at least in theory have been worked out by a super-clever reader, we feel completely cheated. So if our first reaction to the big reveal is ‘Oh no! How did that happen?’ the next one has to be ‘Oh yes, of course! Now it all makes sense!’
There is the odd literary novel that doesn’t rely on a major about-turn of some kind but for me something is lacking when the situation on page one more or less plays itself out to the end. The most ‘surprising’ book I can think of is Sarah Waters Fingersmith which had me delighted with its ingenuity from beginning to end, while The Night Watch left me wondering about a structure that gave us the end on a plate.
Crime writers are used to playing a game with the reader, dropping clues and red herrings to keep him guessing while staying one step ahead. But I think it’s pretty much the same for all of us. We’re all in a game, played to a set of unwritten rules. It’s not so much about winning as being a good opponent. We need to impress the reader, preferably with our own brilliance, or, if he crosses the line just before us, with his own. Either way he’ll relish the thought of a rematch. But if we fail to make him get a sweat on (or even worse, win by nefarious means) he’ll think twice about turning up again.