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NaNoReVisMo- The Element of Surprise

In the midst of the story, the main character could suddenly discover something that changes the whole game. A good guy could turn out bad. Goals could be changed to a more imminent danger that arises. A character's internal conflict could lead to a shocking action. There are many ways to add in twists and turns to build suspense and keep a reader turning pages. Most novels will have at least one, if not a few, surprise moments. Whether it's a huge AHA! or more of a simple revelation, surprises are something readers enjoy and writers struggle to pull off.

Most surprises need to have some roots grounded early in the book--little whispers that could hint at something to come. Things that the reader might not consciously pick up on at first, but once the surprise is discovered, they can connect all the dots together.

Rachelle Gardner has a blog post that distinguishes the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing, which is very important for working the element of surprise. Telegraphing (giving away too much, too soon) can kill the suspense and ultimately ruin the surprise moment, while some well thought out foreshadowing can heighten tension and keep a reader enthralled.

The biggest problem writers suffer when working in a surprise, is that you as the writer already know what will happen. And if you're revising/editing, you've been working on these elements for a while and might not be able to recognize if it's working. So how do you know if you've been successful?

Make a list of any and all foreshadowing or clues you've laid out. Go through each one and ask yourself, would any of these be too obvious? As a reader, would you have been able to figure it out before it actually happened based on these clues? And as always, your best bet--good beta readers to give you solid opinions.

If you're revising, how do you determine if you've done a good job of keeping the reader on their toes and making sure your surprise work? Leave any comments/suggestions below on how you work in your surprises!
Amanda Hannah

Amanda grew up on a big farm in a small town with one stoplight, one school, and a handful of imaginary friends.She would’ve gone to college forever, but eight years and five majors tested her advisor’s patience. So she moved to Germany to explore creepy castles before landing in Spain where she’s perfecting her Flamenco.

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  1. I'm a new reader to this blog: what exactly is a "beta reader"? Does that include close friends that you ask to read your work or something else?

  2. A beta reader is someone that reads your work and offers constructive criticism. It could be someone close to you, but it's usually best to find other writers who will give you honest opinions on your work.
    Here are a few articles on beta readers we've done:

    And here's a link to a forum on AbsoluteWrite where people can find betas, offer to be betas, or learn more about them:

  3. This is funny timing, because I was just thinking about a subplot I decided to add to my WIP, and I was thinking about how to foreshadow it while not foreshadowing it.

    Good suggestions!!

  4. (Hi Virginia!)

    I love twists and surprises. I'm working on not overthinking them, though – I think I used to have a problem with forcing them in my writing.

  5. This is why I love my betas! Sometimes something is so obvious to me and totally misses the mark, or as it usually happens, I give away too much in my excitement!

    I love twisty books though, the ones that make you go OMG! are the best.

  6. What an awesome post, and it couldn't have come at a better time!

    I know I'm successful when my betas tell me they "didn't see [it] coming." I have to balance that, of course, with making sure my surprises don't come out of left field- they tell me if I make that mistake, too.

    I'm in the midst of revisions now and I'm making all sorts of little lists- I'm definitely going to add this to the...list. Har har.

  7. Amanda,

    I do both outline and discovery writing at the same time. One of my favorite experiences is when a great new twist in my story surprises even me, and then when I go back to subtly lay the groundwork to add it into the plot (or subplot), I find the pieces are already there!

    Great post!


  8. Awesome post! Mu novel on sub right now contains a murder and the killer isn't revealed until later in the story. So I have to ask myself if I've set up the clues well, if there are red herring characters, etc. It's HARD to step back and make sure I ace the element of surprise. Thank goodness for beta readers who told me they thought it was X when really it was Y.

  9. Got to love those beta readers. :D I find writing an outline ahead of time helps me with foreshadowing.

    Great post!


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Item Reviewed: NaNoReVisMo- The Element of Surprise Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Amanda Hannah