How to Write Unexpected Story Events

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.


Raylan Givens plays the game by his own rules—which means people come to expect the unexpected. And his unexpected actions still conform to the consistency of character motivations. (Justified (2010-15), FX.)

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.


Characters with complicated motivations and a strong conflict between outer Want and inner Need can provide plausible story events that are unexpected, simply because the story could reasonably go in either direction. (Justified (2010-15), FX.)

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.

Use both foreshadowing (Raylan is a loose cannon) and misdirection (Raylan’s outright indication he’s going to kill Duffy and thereby save Gary).


Write unexpected story events by creating a foundation of inner conflict within your character, right from the start. (Justified (2010-15), FX.)

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What were the last unexpected story events in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. Thanks for that posting. I love this sort of situation, and I’ve used it many times.

    The following is something of a spoiler.

    The setup is that the technology behind faster than light travel is very secret:

    (Jane) ‘Really. I found out how the drive works while I was sixteen years old, and still a citizen of the Mercia colony.’
    ‘And how does it work?’
    She smiled and shook her head. ‘I think you know that’s the one question that I’ll never answer. In fact it’s my job to die rather than answer it, if needs be.’ The trouble was that the answer was dangerously simple—she could have explained it to Alan in ten minutes. ‘Look around you and you’ll see why.’

    Arthur (Antagonist) later captures Jane. He is determined to get the information out of Jane, but his first two attempts at interrogation fail. The first time Jane puts the torturer in hospital, the second time Arthur tries to do the torturing himself until she makes him throw up.

    Then comes the third interrogation:

    And then she knew what she must do.
    ‘All right,’ she said between gasps, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll build you a drive. Now stop, I don’t want to die.’ She felt pressure on her arm. ‘For God’s sake, Arthur,’ she screamed, ‘I’ve given in. Don’t! No! Stop! I’ll do it! Damn you, I’ll build the drive!’ then all she was aware of was the stinging sensation as the injector discharged into her arm. That, and her own agonised, wordless, scream of pure terror.

    So has Jane of unlimited courage and resource actually cracked under interrogation? Nobody who really knows her thinks so.

    She is playing a deeper, deadlier game. She must trust the people who know her to believe in what she is doing, but as for Arthur:

    (Senior officer) ‘They’ve almost finished building it,’ he said, ‘although I’m still having trouble believing what happened. You told Arthur that it was an orthodynamic drive, and he swallowed it.’
    (Jane) ‘Hook, line, sinker and a three-hour angling video. He’d no idea what the drive looked like, and he so desperately wanted to believe that he’d dragged it out of me, that he fooled himself. It’s sometimes easier that way.’
    ‘There’s no deception like self-deception. Once he’d convinced himself that he’d broken me, he believed every word I said.’

    The point is of course that because Arthur doesn’t know what the FTL drive looks like (it’s secret) Jane can get away with selling him anything as a drive. Jane has done something out of character with a good reason, and thereby dealt with Arthur.

    • Ooh, I love that. Self-deception or reverse psychology sometimes works wonders for bringing the unexpected out of characters. This is something I still need to work on in my own fiction. Thanks for your example!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a great line: “Hook, line, sinker and a three-hour angling video.”

  2. Another excellent post.

    One of my favorite examples of this unexpectedness is the Will Smith movie “Enemy of the State” where he manages to wrap things up nicely at the end. One of the axioms I’ve learned from reading military space opera is, “If you have one problem, it’s hard to find a solution, but if you have two problems, they sometimes solve each other.”

    Great job. Keep up the good work.

  3. Awesome and thought-provoking post, Katie! I think you’re right in that well-developed characters with complicated inner dichotomies between Want and Need will practically create their own surprises. I’ll have to keep a more sharp eye out for opportunities to exploit this technique for originality in my outlines/drafts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you dig deep enough, you realize all plot developments start with character. The unexpected is never *truly* unexpected, because it’s rooted deep within the established possibilities for the character.

  4. I saw the Raylan picture and immediately knew I was going to love this. I love it when characters “take a third option.” I insist on having the bad guys react that way, too, especially when my heroes have managed to maneuver them into a lose-lose situation. It keeps the heroes on their toes and it makes the villains a worthy challenge.

    Partly I do that because I have this “people aren’t chess pieces” mantra — I am never quite convinced by scenarios where one mastermind sets up a situation to force his targets to do X, Y, and Z — and every one of his targets cooperates by reacting the way he expects them to. A Raylan Givens character throws an awesome monkey wrench.

    • Agreed. Given a stark choice of A or B mine will consider C, decide that D and E don’t really work and do F.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent mantra! Stories are like chess, in a lot of ways, but if we fail to get down to the characters’ level and see it from their perspective (where it certainlky is *not* a chess match), then the whole thing just ends up feeling mechanical.

  5. Neat. Instead of doing the first thing that pops to mind, I’m going to try to dig a little deeper and see what my MC comes up with. Thanks for these great tips!

  6. I really like what you’re saying here. Unexpected events keep the story interested and the reader reading. There’s also a huge difference between a properly written unexpected story event and a surprise plot twist ending (which may not always make sense or even fit in with the rest of the story.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing is worse than an improperly set-up plot twist. It rarely does what the author is hoping and just yanks the readers’ chain instead. But when the twist is organic within the character and the plot–whooee, that’s hard to beat!

  7. I like this idea. It’s something I’ve tried, but still need to work on. Your tips will be very helpful. Thanks for posting.

  8. One that I remember is Jabba the Hutt. In the original Star Wars, Jabba was this mysterious figure that had something against Han Solo. The fact that we didn’t actually see him only added to that. (By the way, Greedo never fired in the original. Solo just shot him to keep him quiet.) When we finally did meet Jabba, it was a revelation. When George Lucas added the footage to the rerelease in 1997, it ruined things. I could see why he cut it originally. Also, the scene where Greedo shot first ruined it as well. If those scenes had been in the original movie, it wouldn’t have been the hit it was.

  9. Steve Mathisen says

    Justified has been one of my guilty pleasure shows because it was so well written and the characters crafted so well. It also knew when to quit.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That last is especially good to hear. TV shows that overstay their welcome are one of my pet peeves.

  10. Andrewiswriting says

    That’s a great example, and illustrates that real people often have hierarchies of enemies (and goals, and rules, etc) which are not necessarily what you’d expect. I can think of examples from my own life where I might have done something unexpected by the people around me, because my hierarchy wasn’t necessarily what they expected.

    The key here is a real (as opposed to ‘realistic’, which I submit conforms to expectations) character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      John Truby talks about four-cornered conflict. Instead of just a one-on-one conflict between protagonist and antagonist, you have everyone in conflict with everyone. Consequences galore!

      • This is very true. I try to have every one of my characters supplied with their own agenda, something they want to achieve, which is at an angle to the main plot. There is one scene where Jane persuades two of Arthur’s black-hats to take off their helmets. Inside we find not highly-trained stormtroopers but a pair of acne-ridden adolescents who only got into black-hatting because there were no other jobs to be had.

        Their agenda revolves around getting paid and going home to mum safely at the end of the shift.

        Jane refuses to be frightened of them even though they have the guns. She offers to teach them enough about engineering to get sensible jobs elsewhere.

        The antagonist’s dreams of galactic conquest turn on an army of spotty herberts. This is not going to end well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s fun, too, when characters turn out to be the opposite of what is expected–as with your teenage guns for hire.

          • Absolutely. I do a lot of what I call “inversion scenes” where what is going on is the opposite of what you would expect. Jane needs to find Arthur before any more nukes go off, because he has his finger on the button. So she needs to be kidnapped by his minions and taken to him but, you’ve guessed it, the minions are so incompetent that she has to give them quite a lot of help. So we have the minions who are trying to avoid kidnapping her for various reasons, and Jane trying to get them to do it. This is enormous fun to write, and my readers like it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Sounds fun!

  11. I like listening to your podcasts sometimes.

  12. I am commenting for the giveaway you are having.
    My protagonist’s name is Mary, and through my book her character arc is that she gets better at trusting in God.

  13. I’ve been trying to come up with ideas to make my story and my character more interesting, using “what if” scenarios and such…I’m working on a young adult contemporary story and I’ve found it’s kind of hard to figure out events without the story seeming boring (but that’s just me)…do you have any advise to keep the reader reading even though the story isn’t “action” packed? I know John Green and so many others have done it but it’s hard! lol

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Action” in a story doesn’t have to mean guns blazing. It just means the character is doing something to move toward his story goal on a scene by scene basis. Think about how the characters in Fault in Our Stars are always *doing* something, and it’s always plot-pertinent to their end goal of dealing with their cancer and meeting the author of their favorite book.

      • Okay…yeah, I’m still working on what the “end goal” is so I guess once I figure that out, things will slowly start falling into place. Your “Outlining” book has really helped me a lot in figuring out some things for my story though!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Not all writers need to know the end goal when they start writing, but I always find it helpful in avoiding dead ends and discovering the best possible routes for the story to take.

  14. Very helpful!

  15. I love Raylan, he’s such a great, complicated character. Excellent points. Got me thinking about the protagonist in the book I’m starting and realizing he could stand to be more complicated.

  16. Max Woldhek says

    I’ve been having trouble with writing unexpected things, as well as foreshadowing and such, since my particular form of Asperger’s doesn’t exactly lean towards “der sottle stuff” as a Jäger from Girl Genius would put it (in a similar vein, I almost never see plot twists coming).

    I may have stumbled upon a method that could help, though: envisioning the plot as though it’s told by a dramatic movie trailer. With one of my book ideas I struggled to come up with a reason for the protagonist to choose a certain action, but when I imagined it as a trailer an answer presented itself. Maybe this way I’ll be able to come up with unexpected actions that are still in-character.

  17. Zachary Chong says

    In a story I’m planning, the characters are in a haunted house to see what seems to be holograms, but either the holograms end up not being holograms, or the holograms activate things around the house.

  18. Hey KM, I am having a trouble. How do i get ideas about a sequel I want to write? I have used all ideas in the first book and didnt think I could write another one. It is a fantasy novel;its about fantasy world that i have created. Please help as soon as possible. Pls direct me to a post or write a post about this.

  19. M. J. Piazza says

    Hello, K. M. Weiland! I am almost finished with my debut novel, but I have a slight problem: the abyss of darkness right before the climax is not nearly deep enough. The main character, Alynn, is 13 and lives in a tenth-century monastery that is about to be attacked by Barbarians. Her Barbarian source tells her that the invasion had been planned (and fortunately cancelled) for that morning. They later have a falling out, and he insists that he will no longer help her. Later, when Alynn is telling her monastic mentor Lukas about the failed invasion, he has an uncharacteristic flash of fear that manifests through even less characteristic anger. The fiasco ends as follows:
    Suddenly, he slammed his fist on the table so vehemently the entire monastery seemed to shake. “God bless it!” he cried.
    He looked up at Alynn, who was staring back at him with perfectly round, terrified eyes, and turned to leave.
    Alynn dejectedly buried her head in her arms as the sound of Lukas’s boots faded down the hallway towards the chapel. “Oh, Lord,” she sighed, “what did I do wrong?”
    It’s alright—
    “No, no, no, it’s not alright! I’ve nivver seen Lukas that angry! Now, Drostan’s not going to warn us o’ the invasion, I’m not ready, an’ we are all—going—to—die.”

    Immediately afterwards, an arrow is shot through the window, containing a poem that warns of the invasion coming the next morning. What are your thoughts? Thanks so much for your advice!

    M. J. Piazza

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although the ultimate decision of whether the dark moment of the Third Plot Point is “dark enough” will depend on the surrounding tenor of the rest of the book, this looks just fine to me. It’s a threat of death that’s going to swing you right around into the final confrontations of the Third Act.

  20. michelle williams says

    can this information work for Early Edition fanfiction as well


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