Shocked woman reader.

How to Shock Your Readers—in a Good Way

We want to give readers everything they’re hoping for when they pick up our stories. Somewhat contradictorily, one of the things they’re hoping for is to be shocked. Readers love it when authors surprise them in good ways. Backbones straighten up, mouths fall open, breaths get sucked in, heart rates speed up. It’s awesome! As a writer, the very thought of it makes me want to give a very satisfied evil chuckle.

The thing about surprises, however, is that they’re kinda tricky to pull off—much less pull off well. Our first requirement in giving our readers a nice, healthy little shock is figuring out how to surprise them. The best way I know of to do this is to grab a piece of paper, sit down, write “Things the Reader Won’t Expect” at the top, and then start brainstorming. Write down any and every idea—no matter how stupid or implausible some of them may initially seem.

Readers won’t expect your hero to turn into the bad guy. Readers won’t expect him to run away to the circus. Readers won’t expect him to eat a live grasshopper. Who knows? One of these could completely transform your story.

Once you have a nice healthy list with some ideas that are already tickling your imagination and urging further exploration, your next assignment is to make certain the items on your list can pass a final test. In order for something unexpected to not just be a shock to readers, but a good shock, it has to make sense. It has to arise from your characters’ established personalities and, particularly, their motives. You can’t turn your hero into the bad guy or send him running off to become a circus clown unless:

1. It advances the plot.

2. It contributes to conflict and theme.

3. It is absolutely plausible within the rules you’ve defined for both the story as a whole and your character in particular.

If your unexpected event passes this three-part test, then feel free to start your evil chuckling any time you like.

Tell me your opinion: How have you prepared readers for the most shocking of all the events in your story?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I had so much fun doing this when I wrote a murder-mystery dinner play!

    Hopefully your readers will see #2 and follow it: a shock is only TRULY shocking when it is integrated with the story’s core conflict and themes. It needs to send a ripple of betrayal through the reader and likely through protagonist.

    Think about what shocks us – what makes OUR mouths drop in horror in our own lives: The betrayal of our values, beliefs, and dreams.

  2. Great point. It’s the shocks that are deeply personal to the characters that end up shocking readers most deeply as well.

  3. I LOVE twists in books – the bad guy turns out to be the last person you thought it would (sometimes to the point you’re devastated, like, “no, he can’t be the bad guy!!”); someone who’s supposed to be dead really isn’t; your MC is doing everything he/she’s doing because he/she knows he/she’s going to die, etc. I love, love, love them and try to incorporate at least one “holy shit!” in each book I write.

  4. Right behind you. Nothing is better than twist well done. In fact, now I’m mulling on it, I think I’m going to have to delve into this subject a little deeper in Sunday’s post.

  5. Agreed. Frustrating at times, but I a love a story with an unexpected, good twist. I’m planning a few for the stories I’m working on now, and I just finished revealing a twist where a man, whom you know has something up his sleeve in the beginning of the story, actually has a second twist involving his story that is a bit unexpected. I use to be really afraid of “shocking” the readers and shied away from the twists, or if I included them I’d give obvious hints, but I’ve realized not only the value but the importance of these surprises. It keeps the story moving, gives characters’ motivation, and keeps the readers turning the pages well into the wee hours of the morning. It’s the stories whose twists tug at my heart that I remember several years down the road.

  6. The most shocking thing I did was kill off the hero in a tragic accident. My proof reader contacted me asking how on earth could I do such a thing, he was such a lovely character. Without giving too much away the death came near the end of the book but as his inception had been an amazing piece of fiction, the ending left the reader wondering. Is it possible that…..
    You have to read the book to find out. ‘FIRST BREATH’
    I had such fun knowing the shock that was coming to the reader.

  7. @Sarah: Sometimes the best way to pull off a surprise is with a little misdirection. A double surprise is a good way to do this. Readers think they’ve seen it all, so they let their guard down a little, then, bam!

    @Maureen: When you set up a surprise that is so deeply woven into the fabric of the story, it opens up possibilities all over the place.

  8. This is exactly why I didn’t appreciate the movie “Now You See Me.” When you find out who the fifth person is, it is a deliciously surprising twist. However, there was nothing in the story to prepare the audience for it. We even went to see it a second time and still found nothing. Leaves a gal a little deflated. But, boy, was it a good movie except for that.

    However, the timing on this post is great! I’m plotting today, and need to double my number of scenes. The idea for a readers-won’t-expect list is awesome and should be a great help. Thanks!

  9. It’s always a fun list to put together! When I run out of ideas, I’ll often write another list about “Things the Reader Will Expect,” then try to flip the items on that list on their heads.

  10. I love to surprise readers. Sometimes they happen as the story unfolds, the characters decide to make them, or I have to brainstorm them when I’m not happy with certain parts of a story.

    Twists and turns are why I love to write mysteries.

  11. Usually, I find the best twists are those that the characters enact themselves – or, at the very least, those I knew about going into the story. But brainstorming has helped me come up with some fun stuff.

  12. I need a free-pdf book to read.With a short story to see how someone has shocked us.Kindly can anyone send me to my email?

  13. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is a good one.

  14. In all three of my completed book length manuscripts and in a short story – I have one (and sometimes two) twists that my beta readers didn’t expect (but which were foreshadowed). It is fun to write – weaving both foreshadowing, misdirection but also grounding it so the twist is actually central to the story – and doesn’t come across as a fancy way of keeping the reader guessing.

  15. Betas are great for letting us know when twists work – and when they don’t. Nothing beats honest feedback.

  16. Me too! Should be fun.

  17. You are brilliant. ;o )

  18. Hah. Don’t know about that, but I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  19. Yeah, I guessed you would say that. ;o P

  20. I struggle with this, because I don’t want my story to turn into a soap opera. I have had the bad guy become an ally before and my main character’s best friend (and secondary character) was suddenly killed. Also I’ve had a bad guy whose ultimate demise was that of a kitten.

  21. @Violinist: The best ways to avoid melodrama in this area is 1) make sure the shock is a natural outflow of the plot and 2) try to limit your story to only one or two majorly shocking moments.

  22. @K.M. Weiland Thanks! 😀 That’s really helpful!

  23. Good stuff!
    John Truby provides a good framework for establishing this sort of thing in a story in his book “The Anatomy of Story.” He talks about things like story reveals and “double reversals” and characters that aren’t what they seem (fake-allies, fake opponents) or are more than they initially seem. This is all good stuff that adds depth to a story, increases your ‘shock and awe’ factor, and brings readers back for second reads.

  24. Oh, my, surprising readers is always hard, isn´t it? There´s just this balance between the need to foreshadow amd the need to not underestimate the reader and foreshadow too much o.O
    Definitely, questions to have in mind. Loved the “things the reader won´t expect” list.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      We’ll never be able to fool all the readers all the time. Some of them will just be too in sync with our thinking. Others will just be too good at reading the clues.

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