The Craft of Writing: Surprise

It’s such a simple idea, really—says — that surprise is a key element in our work as writers. But somehow, I hadn’t grabbed onto that idea until I took a workshop with Bret Anthony Johnston who believes wholeheartedly in the element of surprise. Here’s what Johnston has to say about it:

As a reader and a writer, I’m always looking for the same thing—for the characters or the writing to surprise me. If I don’t think there’s potential for surprise in something I’m writing, I’ll throw the idea away, if I don’t think there’s potential for me to be surprised as a reader of a novel, I’ll close the book.

Notice that Johnston specifically doesn’t mention plot when he talks about surprise, and yet that’s often where we think to insert surprise when we’re writing. Johnston is more interested in being surprised on the sentence level—with the writing—or with a character who behaves in an unexpected way. And that rings true to me as a reader, particularly a reader of literary journal submissions. Again and again, I find myself writing in the notes: “Characters behaved in expected ways.” And it is strong and surprising writing that often keeps me reading a piece, even if—and especially if—I don’t know where it’s heading.

And as a writer, I know that when I begin to get bored with what I’m writing, I will have lost the reader pages earlier. We have to continually be surprised by our own work.


  • Take one of your characters and write a scene where they behave in a way that feels completely out of character. Don’t worry about it, just do it. See what arises from writing that scene. What do you learn about the character when you push them that far? What elements of the scene can you pull back into your fiction? Is it possible to keep the whole scene?
  • Take a descriptive paragraph from your work and analyze the sentences in it. How long is each sentence? How many adverbs or adjectives do you use? What is the logic that leads from one sentence to the next? Any pet phrases in there that you use again and again? Read it out loud. Now, try all or any of the following:
    1. Switch the order of the sentences to upset the logic;
    2. Rewrite the paragraph in one long sentence, using semi-colons to separate ideas;
    3. Alternate long sentences with short ones;
    4. Remove all adjectives and adverbs;
    5. Tighten each sentence by removing one word;
    6. Read a passage from an author you love. Rewrite your paragraph without looking at the original, trying to pull in elements that the other author uses.
  • Analyze one of your stories or scenes where you suspect the ending is predictable. Why is it so? Have you dropped too many clues along the way? Is the character behaving just as we expect them to behave? Write a different ending that runs counter to these expectations. What can you learn about the character and the story by doing this?