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Monday, October 26, 2020

Surprising Your Readers in Every Scene

Often we think of surprising audiences with large twists and turns, with thrilling midpoints or shocking losses, but bringing surprise into smaller story pieces, like interactions and beats, can sometimes be equally satisfying in their own way.

They also hook and reel in readers, which is always a plus.

In Story by Robert McKee, McKee talks about the importance of "the gap." The gap is that space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen. Sounds simple and obvious, right?

But many writers don't consider how to fully utilize this on the small scale. Every character wants something pretty much all of the time. They may be hungry, so they go to a drive-through, expecting to order. She may be going to a friend's house to tell them she just got engaged, expecting to share that excitement. He might be wanting to ace a test for college.

So everyone wants something, and most people will be taking some form of action to get it. As your character takes that action, think about what they expect, then consider how the result could be different. Maybe your character is trying to order at the drive-through, but no one is responding (a result different than expected), so then what do they do? They take an escalating action. Maybe they raise their voice at the microphone, once, then twice. Suddenly, someone comes on . . . who sounds like they are dying. Now the character needs to think about and take another action, which has another expectation, which could offer another gap.

But not all gaps need to be that drastic. Maybe your character shows up at her friend's house and rings the doorbell, expecting to be let in, like usual. But when her friend opens the door, she blocks the way, and it looks like she's been crying. Unexpected result. Or maybe your character shows up to the testing center, but as he sits down, realizes it's actually an open book test . . . and he didn't bring his.

For the last year or so, I've been revisiting Disney movies, including Frozen. Guess what? This sort of thing happens all the time.

Take a look at this scene alone:


Anna: This way to the North Mountain?

Kristoff: [laughs] More like this way [makes her point higher] <--unexpected

[Characters walking through snowy setting]

Anna: I never knew winter could be so beautiful. <--unexpected

Unknown voice: Yeah, it really is beautiful, isn't it? <--unexpected

[Anna and Kristoff look around mildly confused]

[Unknown voice keeps talking and then walks behind Anna and Kristoff as a living snowman, Olaf] <--unexpected

[Anna sees him and kicks him. His head comes off and he's still talking happily.] <--unexpected

Kristoff: You're creepy.

[After tossing the head back and forth, Anna throws it at the snowman, who falls and then gets back up . . . with his head upside down] <--unexpected

Olaf: Wait, what am I looking at right now? Why are you hanging off the earth like a bat? <--unexpected, for Olaf

[After some talking, Anna gives Olaf a carrot nose . . . which she accidentally pushes in too far so it's out the back of his head] <--unexpected

Anna: Are you okay?

Olaf: Are you kidding me? I . . . am wonderful! I've always wanted a nose! It's so cute. It's like a little baby unicorn. <--unexpected

[Anna smashes the back of the carrot in, so his nose is way bigger] <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh. I love it even more! <--unexpected

Olaf: Alright, so let's start this thing over. Hi, everyone. I'm Olaf, and I like warm hugs! <--unexpected

Anna: [in recognition] Olaf? That's right! Olaf. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: And you are . . . ?

Anna: I'm Anna.

Olaf: And who's the funky looking donkey over there? <--unexpected

Anna: That's Sven.

Olaf: Uh-huh, and who's the reindeer? <--unexpected

Anna: . . . Sven. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Oh, okay, make things easier for me. <--unexpected (in subtext)

[Sven tries to eat Olaf's carrot nose] <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Ah, look at him trying to kiss my nose! I like you too! <--unexpected

Anna: Olaf, did Elsa build you?

Olaf: Yeah, why?

[Kistoff takes off Olaf's arm and begins inspecting it] <--unexpected

Anna: Do you know where she is?

Olaf: Yeah, why? <--note that the repeating why here sort of plays with expectation in a way

Anna: Do you think you could show us the way?

Olaf: Yeah, why?

[Kristoff playing with Olaf's removed stick arm]

Kristoff: How does this work?

[Arm slaps him] <--unexpected

Olaf: Stop it, Sven! <--unexpected

Olaf: Trying to focus here. Yeah why? <--unexpected (the repeat, "yeah why," needs focus?)

Kristoff: I'll tell you why. We need Elsa to bring back summer. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: Summer? Oh, I don't know why, but I've always loved the idea of summer, and sun, and all things hot! <--unexpected

Kristoff: Really? I'm guessing you don't have much experience with heat. <--unexpected, for Olaf

Olaf: (cheerfully) Nope!


You'll notice in this scene that the gap isn't just about the viewpoint character. Every character wants something, even Sven, who wants a carrot (and he doesn't get the result he wants when Olaf reacts). There can also be a gap with the audience and what they expect. Often this is the same as the viewpoint character, but those two things can deviate.

Sure, sometimes the characters do get what they want or expect, and sometimes that's necessary for progression, but you'll notice scenes and interactions are much more interesting, even entertaining, if reality doesn't meet expectation most of the time. If you can turn and twist even beats, the audience will be surprised and thrilled on the small scale over and over again.

To do this, it's important to remember a few things:

- The unexpected result should usually be more powerful or different than expected.

- If it's less powerful than what is expected, it should quickly be followed up by something new and surprising.

- Often the unexpected leads to a form of escalation. Notice how even Olaf wanting introductions creates a sort of rising action, up until he confuses both of the guys as "Sven" and the real Sven tries to bite his nose. In other situations, a sense of risk might escalate, as the character takes more and more actions to try to get what she wants.

- If it doesn't lead to escalation, it should probably lead to the character having to take a different action.

When starting a scene, consider these questions to help you play with the gap:

- What do each of my characters want?

- What does my audience expect?

- What would surprise them?

- How could their reaction open another gap?



- Am I meeting expectations too much?

- If I am meeting expectations, do any of those instances need to be cut? Are they necessary information for the audience? For example, if my character knocks on the door of her friend's house expecting to be let in, and she is, right away, is that interaction meaningful? Or can I start the scene already in the house?

Like every rule, these guidelines can be dangerous if taken to an extreme or misunderstood, but used appropriately, and they can really bring more power, surprise, and entertainment to your scenes.


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