Surprise and Explanation in Stories

SurpriseONE of the joys of reading a well-written story is found in the element of surprise.

A surprise can prevent complacency and help avoid predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.

Surprise and Explanation

Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the young protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, fails to understand the reasons why his uncle is disliked by his mother. Consequently he plays a childish prank on him, hoping to drive him away from their home. When his uncle is found dead in his bed the very next day, Benjamin thinks it is as a result of the prank and the guilt stays with him for decades. It seeps into other areas of his life, including his taking the blame for the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. By remaining unresolved the poorly understood event helps to define his life.

I knew that I had a powerful mechanism at my disposal that could ripple through the entire story. I just had to ensure that I used it at the right moment, in this instance, the climax – the nexus of the protagonist’s inner and outer life. I also had to make sure that the explanation it offered was credible. I did so by placing sufficient clues along the way, drawn from the backstory.

Judging from the reviews of The Nostalgia of Time Travel has received thus far, it appears that I may have succeeded.


A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in your story ties your protagonist’s inner and outer life together and leaves a lasting impression.

2 thoughts on “Surprise and Explanation in Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    A well-crafted, well-timed surprise in a story is what separates great stories from good stories. I find this post to be the single most relevant post blogged yet on this page. The great Alferd Hitchcock defied surprise as knowing something that the main protagonist does not, be it through viewer or any other character.

    Examples where surprise is successful ( spoiler alert!)
    1. In Jeffry Archer’s fourth installment of his Clifton chronicles a adopted orphan uncovers the identity of her biological father via her adopted father’s ex wife who explains the motive behind her adoption was to save there family reputation. This humiliating family secret sends her in to a rage and eventual suicide.

    2. In Nickelodeon’s “The last Air bender” a banished prince redeems himself by slaying the mythical being known as the Avatar. Feeling unsatisfied he goes into a state of depression until he is told of his family’s secret connection to the Avatar. It is revealed to him that his father’s grand father was a king (whom he knew) and his mother grand father( whom he did not know) was a Avatar.

    3. In The Spy drama “The Americans” two Russian spies are called to duty by the USSR during the height of the 1980’s cold war. There children completely oblivious to there real identity. When there oldest child grows more and more suspicious of why she has no relatives she finally confronts them. They reveal there identities and tell there her if she tells anyone they will go to jail. The season finally ends on a cliffhanger as the final scene shows how there she tells her most trusted friend the identity of her parents.

    The element of surprise is what makes a script a page turner before it’s story can see the light of screen.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      True, Gerhard. Surprises are particularly effective when they become vehicles for revealing material from the back story which sheds light on the actions of a character, or several characters – when they integrate the past with the present.


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