The grand surprise in stories—how to set it up!

Shutter Island contains a story-altering surprise.
Shutter Island contains a story-altering grand surprise.

What is a grand surprise and how do we set one up?

If story structure could be represented on a sheet of paper it would look like a zig-zagging line mediated by two or three radical turns. The zig-zagging lines and turns represent surprises of varying strength.

Telegraphing your punch eliminates the surprise, making your story predictable and boring. In his book, Film Scriptwriting, Dwight. V Swain reminds us that stories should be unpredictable but logical, in other words, contain development that is plausible but unforeseen.

One way to achieve this is to set up an anticipated line of action then spin off in a different direction.

But the surprise can’t feel inauthentic or forced.

Shutter Island opens with Deputy Edward (Teddy) Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, arriving on the island to investigate a psychiatric facility where a patient has mysteriously disappeared. But things are not what they seem. The surprise in the story turns the narrative on its head but is effective because it has been carefully prepared for by the film-makers.

“A grand surprise changes the path of the story fundamentally, forcing it in a direction that we didn’t see coming. Use it to keep your stories fresh and exciting.”

Suppose you’ve written a story where your hero encounters numerous obstacles in order to sneak into the room where his girlfriend is supposedly waiting for him. He struggles up the drainpipe outside the house and finally reaches her open window. The room is in darkness. He climbs inside, and, panting with passion and fatigue, he tiptoes to the figure lying on the bed. The bedside light goes on to reveal that the figure is not his girlfriend but her mother.

This sort of surprise might not necessarily rise to the level of a turning point, or be as story-altering as the one in Shutter Island, but it does constitute a deviation from the story’s path. Providing that the set-up is right, twists will help keep your stories unpredictable.


To keep your stories fresh and unpredictable spin your readers and audiences away from expectation through a grand surprise.

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