Stories are all pretty much the same. Something happens that inspires something else to happen that inspires a resolution of some sort. With all the billions of stories out there, it’s no surprise we see the same plot elements recycled frequently. But don’t let the frequency of blasé, expected plot events become an excuse. Instead, focus on how to write unexpected story events.
How do you do that? There are two keys.
1. You must be aware of what is expected by readers.
2. You must look for the unexpected in the heart of your characters’ motivations.
Sounds easy, right? And yet when you sit down to make it happen in your own story, it’s surprising how often and how easy it is to cop to the same old formulae.
How to Write Unexpected Story Events? First, Write Unexpected Characters
If your characters are doing and saying the same ol’ thing in every scene, it’s probably not because you’re a bad or unimaginative writer. It’s probably because the character himself is the same ol’ thing. You can’t milk unusual or electrifying events from a character who is always true to type.
Unexpected story events arise from the heart of characters who have complicated motivations and unique methods. Justified consistently offers exceptionally smart writing and unexpected events for the simple reason that its characters—especially rogue Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens—don’t play by the standard rules of the genre.
Raylan is the story’s hero, the “good” guy, and yet he breaks the rules by consistently taking the law into his own hands. This in itself isn’t necessarily unexpected. Rogue lawmen who circumvent bureaucracy to do the right thing are as old as the classic western. But Raylan consistently pushes the envelope in ways that (up through Season 2, at any rate) subvert expectations without forcing him into a position that makes him either unduly “bad” or unduly stupid.
For example, consider the storyline in which he discovers his ex-wife’s ex-husband—the idiotic, corrupt, but usually well-meaning Gary—has sunk himself in deep with the mobster Duffy in an attempt to whack Raylan. Raylan loads Gary and Duffy’s spy into the car and takes them all out to confront Duffy.
What’s he going to do? Raylan is ever unpredictable—bouncing between reckless but decisive action and lawful restraint. Under the circumstances, it isn’t too unexpected when he responds to Gary’s query (about why he doesn’t call in in his fellow marshals as backup) by saying calmly: “Oh, they’ll just arrest him.”
Gary, who continues to believe himself a law-abiding citizen, is, of course, shocked. Viewers who have seen Raylan get away with executing deserving bad guys before aren’t too surprised.
Then comes the unexpected—not once, but twice.
Once they arrive at Duffy’s, Raylan not only reveals he never intended to shoot the deserving Duffy, but he then pulls a “double switcheroo.” Viewers may initially be surprised Raylan would hand Duffy over to a law system that would inevitably release him, but they’re even more surprised when Raylan then uses the ploy of leaving a vengeful Duffy alive in order to force Gary on the run “never to return.”
Didn’t see that one coming? (And you gotta know there will be consequences.)
3 Ways to Seek Out Unexpected Story Events
Although unexpected events will often occur to you in the spur of the moment when writing a scene, they are never born of that scene. They are always the result of how you have set up your readers’ expectations in all the scenes leading up to this one.
If you lead readers to expect your rogue-but-usually-lawful lawman may occasionally shoot the deserving bad guy, you have created for yourself the opportunity to surprise them when you then give that character a good reason to behave in exactly the opposite way.
To make this work, you must first:
1. Set reader expectations in previous scenes.
2. Create complicated motivations and realistically flawed morals for your characters.
Let their Wants and Needs pull them in opposite directions and force them into lose-lose decisions, no matter what they choose.
3. Build scenes in which it makes sense for the character to play against type and do the unexpected.
You can’t have the character do what’s unexpected simply because it’s unexpected. Even when the outcome is a gamble and even when the character faces long-term consequences, he must have a sensible motivation in the moment and reasonable cause to believe he’s making the better choice.
Figuring out how to write unexpected story events can be a turning point in the “smartness” and originality of your fiction. Fortunately, as with so much of fiction, it’s all about getting your foundation right: write solid and complex characters, and the unexpected story events will practically create themselves.