As writers (and readers), we often hear (or think) some variation of:
“Don’t let your characters act predictably. Keep it fresh. Keep us guessing. We want to be surprised, not bored.”
Ruggedly handsome mystery novelist Richard Castle said:
“Life should be an adventure. You want to know why I killed Derrick [Storm]? There were no more surprises. I knew exactly what was going to happen every moment of every scene. It’s just like these parties. They become so predictable.”
Guys, I’m on a roll – NCIS and Castle in the same post!
The point is, it can be downright tricky to actually DO this. My golden rule for keeping characters, reactions and situations unpredictable is threefold:
- Brainstorm several possible reactions/actions your character could take for a given scene. Write them down.
- Cross off at least the first two. You don’t want to use these; they’re likely too obvious.
- Review the rest of your list, especially the last few options. Play around with the possibilities. Ask yourself if any are a) mildly realistic, b) intriguing to readers. Chances are, you’ll find a scenario with a lot more oomph and surprise than you initially thought. Have some fun with it! Instead of having your heroine fight off that nasty zombie were-bear, what if she lassos it and rides it into battle on the side of good? Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Your readers won’t either.
Back to our favorite NCIS crew for an example:
Scene: The cliffhanger ending of a Part 1-of 2 left Tony and Ziva badly injured in a car crash, where the bad guys have slammed them broadside. As the camera fades, Tony and Ziva are both unconscious; Ziva is on the passenger side, the worst hit. They’d been holding hands, and we see their hands now slowly drop apart.
What Viewers are Thinking/Expecting: Eep! What is going to happen? How badly are they hurt? Will they be rushed to the hospital? They’re clearly both out of it, so the rest of the team will need to find them and ride to the rescue.
Scene: Flash to the opening of Part 2. The bad guy gets out of his car and starts walking toward the unconscious Tony and Ziva.
What Viewers are Thinking/Expecting: Oh crap! That dude’s still there! Wait, where’s the rest of the team? This isn’t good. Wake up, wake up. They’re too hurt. They’re not going to be able to fight their way out of this one.
Scene: Ziva groggily wakes up and sees bad guy approaching.
What Viewers are Thinking/Expecting: Okay, Ziva, you still have a few seconds. Drag Tony out the window and run. That’s your only chance. Seriously, you can barely move, much less fight.
What Ziva Actually Does: Grits through the pain (To run, right? Quick, get out of the car!)…and DRAWS HER GUN! Because she is just that much of a badass.
I don’t know about you guys, but I applauded the writers when I first watched this. 1) I figured they would just do a “flash to the hospital” follow up after the crash. I did not think they’d continue the scene in real time, where the bad guy is still an active threat. And 2) I was expecting a “live to fight another day” approach where Ziva grabs Tony, limps to safety and calls Gibbs with a SitRep before slipping unconscious again.
Thankfully, the show’s writers know how to one-up my expectations.
It was a great twist, and—even better—in hindsight, it matches perfectly with what we know about Ziva’s character…it just wasn’t our first guess.