Questions to ask to surprise your reader.


I love being surprised when I read. And it’s that surprise element that keeps me turning pages. The surprise could be in the form of tension, humor, character development, dialogue, plot points…you name it. As soon as a story turns predictable and dull to me – that’s when I put it down or skim.

  1. Is your story premise unique and fresh? As writers we hear those words all the time. Whether your story involves angels, vampires, ghosts or just a plain old 4th grade boy, push beyond the first idea. Change it up. Make it different. A unique story idea gets noticed.
  2. Are your plot points/turning points the first idea that came to mind?  Try listing 10-15 different ideas. Dig deep. Then decide if your first idea was really your best.
  3. Is your ending predictable?  Again, try listing ideas.You don’t want your ending predictable but you don’t want it so far out there that no one believes it. Remember balancing and foreshadowing.
  4. Does your story have a major reveal or plot twist half way through? A well-designed plot twist that changes the course of a character’s journey always sparks my interest in finishing. And it prevents the dreaded sagging middle.
  5. Are your scenes falling into a predictable pattern? Or…a little boring? Make sure your main character has a goal each scene. Surprise the reader in how his goal is thwarted and how your main character reacts.
  6. Are your characters predictable? It’s okay for your characters to act out of character. I sure don’t act the same way all the time. Give the shy girl a moment where she gets mad and yells. Give the selfish/mean character a moment of mercy and compassion. In other words, add depth to your characters.
  7. Can you make the challenges and obstacles your characters face more unique to your story?  Go back to making a list. Sometimes what we think is bad, just isn’t bad enough.
  8. How would you rate your details on a scale from vague to specific? Fun and unique details about a character or the setting immediately draws me into the story. Surprise the reader. Go past the typical.
  9. How about sentence structure and paragraph length? Long sentences, short and powerful sentences – mix it up. Don’t always start your sentences with a phrase, or an -ing word, or the character’s name. Have short paragraph and long paragraphs.
  10. What about word choice? I love reading unique similes that pertain to the story. I love reading strong verbs that evoke a mental image. I love nouns and verbs that help set the mood. Cutting the deadwood from your sentences will be a delight to your readers’ eyes.

This recent post on Guide to Literary Agents blog is exactly what I’m talking about.

I loved this unique story premise presented in a query on the Caren Johnson Literary blog.

Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel covers the topic of breaking out past the typical. He talks about larger than life characters and character turnabouts and suprises. Worth reading.

Join in. Add your tips in the comments on how to surprise your reader.

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18 Responses to Questions to ask to surprise your reader.

  1. Tina Lee April 9, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    I am commenting to try your new plug in!

  2. Laura April 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Tina – Let me know if it works!

  3. Laura Pauling April 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    I’m trying it again. The comment subscription is working for me.

  4. Jewel Allen April 9, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Hi Laura,

    I love this post. I think sometimes I get into this rut where I will make my characters do certain things in my storyline that are predictable. I love throwing in a wrench when things are going well for the mc. Then I sit back and watch as the character surprises ME with his/her reaction.

    Thanks for the link!

  5. Nelsa April 9, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Great post. Love the questions! Surprises in characters or in plot are essential – especially if you read so much that nothing surprises you anymore. That’s why I loved the Hunger Games so much – I really couldn’t predict how anything would turn out. I’m attending the Donald Maass workshop at the Toronto Romance Writers tomorrow so looking forward to hearing him talk about breaking out of the typical.

  6. Laura April 9, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    Jewel – Thanks for stopping by. I have to constantly remind myself to think bigger when I write or revise.

    Nelsa – I’m sure you’ll love it! You’ll have to share when you get back.

  7. Tina Lee April 9, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    It didn’t work! Perhaps I will try it again. Maybe I did it wrong!

    No it says I’m subscribed. I will see what happens if I go to manage your subscriptions.

  8. Tina Lee April 9, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    I couldn’t figure it out. Wa!

  9. Laura April 9, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    I don’t know what’s wrong, Tina. I’ll have to have someone else more savvy, like my brother, check it out. I signed out of my blog when I commented and subscribed, and they are all coming to me. Has it worked for anyone?

  10. Shannon Morgan April 9, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    Great post, Laura – this is going to be a new checklist for me. Thanks!

  11. Laura April 9, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    Thanks Shannon! I’m sure there are more to add to the list. I tried to start macro and go micro. But really, each question could probably be a blog post. or a book. 🙂 And I’m still learning how to apply.

  12. Karen Strong April 9, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Great list of tips, Laura.

    Have a great weekend! 🙂

  13. Katie Ganshert April 10, 2010 at 1:39 am #

    This is such a great list! Thanks for the comment on my blog today. Hope you have a good weekend!

  14. Catherine A. Winn April 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Great check list to go by when working on a novel. Thanks also for posting the links–I want to read Pickle Impossible just from that query letter. Great lesson–now if I could just write one! sigh

  15. PJ Hoover April 12, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    This is a great list…especially about the plot twist in the middle. Thanks!

  16. Laurel April 12, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Wonderful tips! thanks! I’m trying to correct mid-story sag and you have some great stuff here to help up the tension.


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