How Elements of Surprise Work In Storytelling

Photo by British Library

There are many surprises that pop out of nowhere. A vase falls to the floor, a bang from a gun, a person shouting. They can be shocking or so mild we hardly notice them or even care. They can be delightful or distracting and take up brain space. But once it clicks, once it’s constructed with feeling and mechanism, the audience is in awe. It becomes revolutionary.

How do surprises work in storytelling?

You need a clear direction that leads from one place to the next. That’s a start. But where does the road lead to? The plot of the story must produce the impression that the whole has been coherent and inevitable. The human brain conspires to stories that knit material together to create an illusion of continuity. This is not only an important ingredient but also provides development for the characters and other elements of narrative pleasure. Surprises can lead back to the root of psychology, the way people think of fiction as it is, and why it is so attractive. It recapitulates the dynamics that evolve in the story. Fiction has a structured order; it taps into various dialogue and visual imagery tuned with attention inside a social hierarchy. Gossip, alliances, and worlds are many incredible forces of literature, allowing social cognition to grow and boost emphatic capacity.

How is it built?

It depends on the surprise. You can kill someone off for no reason, but can it leave a satisfying impression? It must be a surprise without being a surprise. Information comes late in the narrative and reveals a change of what has gone before. The truth becomes a sudden revelation that forces the audience to reevaluate events. In case the surprise turns out to be a huge failure, the story must build itself in silence through a set of expectations and distractions, and then maintaining a sense of fair play. Only if the surprise is, at first, unexpected, and it does not, in retrospect, conflicted with the information otherwise presented. This can be found in the middle of the second act where the story’s critical moment occurs and the hero achieves discovery through awareness and true nature. Only then can the audience experience both halves of the effect: overlook evidence first, recognize them later.

Why are surprises important?

One of the most common reactions the audience thinks about is not seeing the truth all along. Stories arise within the mind and no matter how hard it sounds, it stimulates all the details into something that is already known. When we attribute emotions and thoughts, we project and adjust from our own experience. In retrospect, our current self knows the answer to the narrative and our past self should have known it too. Stories have pleasure, because the mechanics of surprise shows persuasion, and to accept what is available and intertwine them with character development.
And these mental limits make us want to see more.

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I’m a freelance copywriter focusing on storytelling techniques, voiceover, and productivity.

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Patrick Sisson, AKA Pat Man

Patrick Sisson, AKA Pat Man

I’m a freelance copywriter focusing on storytelling techniques, voiceover, and productivity.

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