Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Difference Between Tricking Your Reader and Surprising Your Reader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

If you’re going to trick your readers, proceed with caution and a lot of skill.

During a world-building panel I did at the Space Coast Comic Con, we had a brief discussion about tricking readers. Some authors on the panel were for it, some against it, and there were strong opinions on both sides.

It made me think about what makes a good twist vs. a bad trick. Because some novels trick readers and we love the author for it, but others trick readers and we refuse to ever read that author again.

I think it’s the Dallas vs. Newhart difference.

For those who weren’t watching a lot of TV in the 80s, both shows had huge twists that surprised viewers. One worked, one did not.

In the show Dallas, a beloved character (Bobby) died in a season finale. The next season proceeded without him, developing storylines and dealing with his death and all the normal things you’d expect to happen after killing off a favorite character. 

But in the season finale of that year, Bobby’s wife walks into the bathroom one morning and discovers him in the shower. It was all a dream! The entire season was a, “ha, ha, fooled you!” for viewers and none of it actually happened.

Viewers were pissed.

The show Newhart did almost the same thing. From 1982 to 1990, the show followed the life and times of Bob, an innkeeper in Vermont. However, Bob Newhart also had a show that ran from 1972 to 1978 that followed the adventures of Bob, a psychologist in Chicago. 

On the final episode of the 1990’s show, Bob wakes up with the wife from the original 1970’s series, and says he had the weirdest dream (and that his wife should wear more sweaters—a joke to viewers). It was a masterful twist and a great ending to a much-loved show.

Why did one twist work and the other fail?

Dallas failed because viewers felt lied to. They invested time and emotion into characters and stories that were yanked away from them. The dream invalidated everything about the season.

Newhart succeeded because viewers felt part of the joke. Many likely knew the original show and felt a character coming full circle with a nod to the previous series. It was also the final show of the series, so even though it was just Bob’s dream, it didn’t invalidate everything they loved about the current show set in Vermont.

This is the difference between a surprise and a trick.

Tricks make readers feel lied to, while surprises make readers feel entertained.

The toughest part of tricks vs. surprises, is that it’s different for every reader. Some readers enjoy a plot that they can’t figure out because the author withheld vital information, while others find this incredibly frustrating (though honestly, I think more fall on the frustration side). 

But there’s another pitfall to watch out for: if you haven’t laid enough groundwork for the twist, it might not come across as a trick or a surprise—it just might feel like bad plotting. 

Readers (and viewers), love surprises. They want the twists, the shocks, the unexpected, but they also want to feel that their investment in the novel is worthwhile. If things aren’t real, then there are no stakes and no consequences for any of the character’s actions. If nothing matters, then why bother reading the book? Why care about the characters and events if they aren’t real or none of it actually happened?

Here are some things to remember when crafting surprises (or tricks) for your readers:

Not all tricks are treats.

What constitutes a trick falls into a strange gray area. A trick can be a good surprise if:
  • Readers are skillfully distracted to think one thing when in reality, another thing was actually going on
  • The narrator is unreliable and readers aren’t sure if they should trust what they read or not
  • The author lets readers make all the wrong assumptions that lead them to the wrong conclusion, but there are no lies in anything they read
All of these allow readers a chance to figure out the truth, or know that what they’re seeing might not be right. They know something is up, so odds are the trick will be a twist that delights them.

A trick can be bad if:
  • Readers are purposefully misled to believe one thing when it’s really something else, and the author hides the clues that would have made readers suspicious
  • Nothing readers have believed turns out to be real and the whole point of the novel becomes meaningless
  • The twist is designed to make readers feel dumb for not figuring it out sooner
The intent of a trick isn’t to astound or surprise, but to be smarter by lies, omissions, and trickery. Don’t play readers for fools and deny them a chance to figure out the truth for themselves.

(Here’s more on How to Sneak Clues Past Your Readers and Keep Them Guessing) 

There’s a thin line between “what a fantastic twist” and “I’m never reading this author again.”

Like so much in writing, author intent plays a large role in surprises and tricks. 

If the goal is to craft a twisty story that keeps readers guessing and makes them wonder what the truth really is, there’s a good chance you’re surprising and not tricking. 

If the goal is to purposefully lie about information readers need to spot the twist, and you’re intentionally misleading them, odds are you’re tricking them.

If the goal is to make readers wait until the very last page to find out the truth, and you’re rubbing your hands together glee while thinking, “They’re never going to guess this,” well, it could go either way. If the truth is there, just well-hidden, it might be a surprise. If not, it’s likely a trick.

That line can be extremely thin. Sometime it’s hard to know how much to share and how much to hold back. Ask yourself:

Are there any clues about the truth in the story? 

If there isn’t a single clue or hint that things aren’t what they seem, that’s a red flag readers will feel tricked when you reveal that truth. 

If there’s a hint or suggestion that things aren’t what they seem, you’ll probably end with readers delighted over the surprise they didn’t see coming. Ender’s Game is a great example here. All the clues are there, but you don’t realize they are clues until the truth is revealed. (And I won't say more and spoil this book. Even the movie handles this well).

Is the truth clear once readers know that truth? 

A great twist is one that you never saw coming, but when you go back through the story you see how it all unfolded inevitably to that surprise. Life of Pi is a good example here. Everything you see makes sense in the context of the story, but when the truth is revealed, it still fits that truth, and the reality is all the more poignant.

Do you tell readers it wasn’t real from the start? 

Some stories let you know right away things aren’t what they seem. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar tells you the narrator is a liar before you open the book, so anything she says can’t be taken at face value. When readers know up front all bets are off, they don’t mind if “anything can happen.”

(Here's more on Let’s Do The Twist – The Art and Science of The Plot Twist)

Include the reader in the “joke” (the twist) and they’ll welcome the surprise.

Surprises are wonderful things, and we should aim to keep our readers guessing, but when we shift from twist to trick, we risk losing those readers. But playing fair will keep our readers coming back. 

After all, we want them enjoying the surprise, not feeling like they never had a chance to really understand what was going on in the novel.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the twists, reveals, and surprises in your novel. Are there any that might be more trick than treat? 

What’s your favorite plot twist (if you can say without spoiling anything)? What twist didn’t you like? 

*Originally published September 2016. Last updated December 2020.
For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Although I imagine anyone who cares has already watched, no spoilers in case people haven't yet.

    Mr. Robot seasons 1 and 2 both had decent plot twists that a looooot of people saw coming (I guessed the first one, but was blindsided by the second). Both worked for me, because when I go back and rewatch episodes, I can see "oh this was a clue for X". They're subtle, but they're there.

    Personally, I liked the twist in season 1 better, because it felt like season 2's twist existed because someone said "this show has twists, where's the twist?"

    1. I appreciate the spoiler-free comment :) I've watched the first few episodes, but not the whole series yet. Though I did read some unhappy posts about the season two twist.

    2. Oh you're in for a treat! Elliot is a fantasticly unreliable narrator, and I really liked how he makes the viewer into another character. I'm behind on second season. It's still good, but nothing was going to top how great season 1 was.

  2. Such good points. The words imply the truth too. Trick bad; twist good. The best is when, as a reader, we say "I never saw that coming...but dang it all, I should have 'cause it fits."

    1. Those are the ones I love for sure. A great twist is one where every time you read/see it you catch something new you missed the last time.

  3. O. Henry was famous for the plot twists at the end of his short stories. They were surprising and memorable. Two favorites I still remember from high school English class are "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief."

    1. I remember reading those in school. Always entertaining.

  4. Excellent as usual, and a perfect pair of examples to show it off.

    I think it might come down to "the truth has to be more important than the trick." A well-done surprise lets the story shift to an even higher gear, where the reason for the surprise and what it means (what character was lying, why characters or reader wanted to believe it) turns out to be more believable and more exciting than the story had been before.

    It might be a plausible murder suspect replaced by an even more sinister one, or a deep but faulty theme unmasked to show an even deeper one. "Gift of the Magi" is classic, where a couple's sacrifices are "wasted" but remind them their love is more important.

    (And I'm with H. R. Sinclair, "never saw it.. and should have" always has to be part of the question. How convincing a twist can be afterward is a good measure of whether it fits the whole.)

    If a trick is there to set up a greater truth, that's a good start. If it's there just to trick the reader... not so much.

    1. I like that. "the truth has to be more important than the trick." Words to keep on a post-it note stuck to the monitor.

  5. Excellent examples. After all these years the Dallas twist still irks me. Perhaps the reason I watch far less TV these days? Maybe not, but it feels like it. On the other hand, the Newhart twist was brilliant. It still makes me laugh. One pushed viewers away and the other pulled them in. One was a betrayal and the other lived up to an already high comedy standard—and then exceeded it. Dallas never recovered. Bob Newhart is beloved to this day and pops up on Big Bang Theory on occasion, still as funny as ever.

    1. You guys are summing it up perfectly. "One pushed viewers away and the other pulled them in."

  6. My favorite twist ending is in `Chimera' by Rob Thurman. One reason it works is because it's a first person narrator who misses all the clues, but a more important reason it works for me (and warms my heart every time I think of the book) is what you said about the truth being more important than the trick. The truth, when he learns it (and how he chooses to accept it) makes him so much more of an awesome and endearing character. (Chimera is very much an adult book, just to warn anyone who is interested so they won't be taken off guard. But it's really one of my favorites. My copy is getting worn out.)

    1. I haven't read that, but now I'm intrigued :) Adding it to my "check these out" list.

  7. You make a very good point regarding the difference between tricking readers and providing a surprise. I certainly wouldn't want to make a reader feel tricked and turned off from reading any of my other stories.

    1. It's a tough line to walk. And I'm sure there are readers out there who love to be blindsided, since there are popular books that do it. Just one more thing to add to the list of things each writer has to decide for herself. :)

  8. In the first volume of the Cazalet series a character is referred to by a gender neutral name and turns out to be a romantic interest of the same sex as one of the family. its an early surprise and their relationship continues through the remaining. Because of the time period the idea of a same sex relationship being part of this family's life is unexpected. As a reader, I said "aha!" and enjoyed staying with this couple as part of the cast of characters throughout the series.

    1. That's cool :) I love the play on preconceived ideas.

  9. I was definitely angry about Bobby Ewings return. I had watched all the stories play out there were loose ends. It was easy to confused about what DID and DIDN'T happen and I stopped watching the series completely. It was just engineered to get Bobby back. Bad!

    The Newhart ending was so totally different and so much fun to see his "first" wife again.

    1. It says a lot about how much it affected people, that 30 years later they're still talking about it, and still annoyed about it.

  10. I hate being tricked as a reader, but many of my favorite books involve well written twists, and the same thing applies with movies. For example, I love the book Code Name Verity. It has a important twist about three quarters of the way through the book, but the main characters have been established in a way that the trick enhances rather than detracts from their character. It's important for the ending. Some favorite movies that also twist the audiences perception with an unreliable narrator that they aren't aware of is The Sixth Sense. Another favorite of mine is Dream House. All of them have clues left here and there, but not enough for you to think you should've seen it coming. Once you do know, you go back through the whole movie and think about all of the things that you didn't know because the main character didn't know, and you can't help but want to watch it over.

    1. It's a tough thing to do well, but when it works it can be golden. Sixth Sense is a great example for several reasons. One, it's amazing. Two, most of MNS's movies after that tried to capitalize on the "twist ending" and very few of them worked. Makes me wonder if I watched them all again, would I see the good ones used a twist and the bad ones used a trick.