Gripping stories are a cloth woven out of the yarn of surprise. Surprises can be big or small. At the very least, they are unexpected but fitting events imposed on a character from the outside, or from inner pressures stemming from a character’s own values and fears.
Surprise is the antidote to boredom and the enemy of predictability. A fitting surprise is one that catches us unawares, but is perfectly authentic, soliciting an “I should have seen it coming” response.
“Gripping stories continually thwart our expectations through surprise and keep us engaged through suspense.”
Homeland, Season 8, (spoiler alert) contains a fine example of this technique—a series of twists woven together to form a substantial part of the story: Carrie has been instructed to try and retrieve the black box from the downed helicopter carrying the American and Afghan presidents. If the black box proves that the helicopter went down due to mechanical failure, rather than a Taliban rocket, a war between the United States and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, can be averted.
With US fighter planes closing in to bomb the site, Carrie Mathison instructs Max, who is part of a small ground force dispatched to investigate the crash, to try and acquire the black box from the helicopter. Max manages to do so, but (twist) Taliban fighters close in and pin him and his team down. When it looks like Max might get away with the device, he is captured by a lone Taliban soldier (twist), then shot trying to escape. He is taken to a house deep in Taliban country and tied to a steel bed.
“Gripping stories are by their very nature unpredictable.”
Carrie solicits the help of Yevgeny, a Russian agent with whom she has a complicated relationship, and manages to track Max down (twist), but the black box has been removed by his captors (twist). Together with Yevgeny, Carrie tracks the device down to an electronics chop-shop and pays the broker who has the item one million dollars for it. She manages to read enough information from the device to know that the helicopter crash was indeed due to mechanical failure. She and Yevgeny kiss and agree to work together in the future (twist). Carrie is about to leave with the black box when Yevgeny betrays her. He injects her with an anaesthetic and steals the device from her (twist).
“Another way to define surprise is as a sudden turn from the ostensible direction of the narrative.“
The main feature about these dramatic beats is their unpredictability. Although the goal remains the same—to find and return the black box to the United States and so avert a war with Pakistan—each new and surprising obstacle blocks the straight line to the goal and forces it to change direction. The result is a narrative that grips our attention.
Gripping stories unexpectedly turn reader and viewer expectations in ways that keep the narrative filled with suspense.