Monday, August 20, 2012

Pros and Cons of Surprises

This week I want to discuss something that is surprisingly touchy for me: whether or not it is better to end a story with a shocking revelation. That is, a big surprise reveal that tells the reader he or she has been tricked the whole time, that the truth is not what it has seemed to be. This might not sound like a very controversial subject, but after reading On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, I have seen that one can argue quite extensively on this.

Gardner's view is that surprising the reader at the end is poor writing because it eliminates what makes fiction writing "good." That means, the character development, the difficult choices, and the internal strife that makes a story worth reading. In his opinion, the "victim story", a story told from the perspective of someone who eventually gets used or harmed in some way, is useless because the victim doesn't know that this is happening until the end, and cannot act on it. Think of a story written from the perspective of someone unknowingly being conned out of his life savings. Until the end, there is no conflict for him, no problems. Now imagine the same story, but either told from the perspective of the con artist (questions of morality, fear of getting caught) or the victim, but this time the victim knows he's being conned. In this second case, maybe he knows the con artist personally and has reasons for going along with it. What would they be? Why would it be preferable to lose all his money rather than turn in, or even just brush off, the con artist? Gardner's point is that a story where the character knows the problems and has to deal with them is a much more interesting story.

However, I think there are times when it's okay to shock the reader with surprises at the end. It worked for O. Henry of "The Gift of the Magi" fame. One can make the argument that mystery writers have no choice but to surprise the reader. Yet, I feel like I should add a qualification to this part. O. Henry's stories were short stories, and a reader didn't need much patience to get to the big reveal in the end. Holding out revealing something huge until the end in a novel requires lying to the reader; there's no other way to keep a secret for so long.

Mystery novels can have some kind of huge revelation at the end because the plot revolves around searching for the truth. The story is not about character development - well, some may be, but mostly that's not the case - it's about getting the bad guy and finding out how he did it. However, while the plot may end with a surprise, many mystery novels hide little clues along the way that let readers catch on, if they're observant.

So, what's my final opinion? Surprises have their place, but probably not in a long work like a novel unless it's a mystery novel. Even then, a writer has to be careful to let the story flow and not work to obscure the truth to the reader. That's never a good thing. Why is this touchy for me? I have written at least one story with a big, snappy reveal at the end, and now I have begun to question whether or not my story could be stronger if my characters knew more from the beginning. They would not be victims; they would have the power to act in their circumstances. And then, who knows what consequences they would set in motion?

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