By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

A Martian observer assigned to screenings of horror films might understandably conclude that the audiences are in agony. People shift in seats and cover their faces and grunt and howl. The reactions certainly resemble death-throes-style
Kathy Flann
anguish. What’s going on there? Studies have shown that viewers’ brains respond to the events on the screen as if they are experiencing them firsthand. So when the murderer pops out of a closet with a butcher knife and the viewer leaps backward, it’s because the human brain perceives a real threat and activates a fight-or-flight response. As scared as the movie-watchers are, they don’t look away. Perhaps they almost can’t. Perhaps they even like it. A lot.

Why are people drawn to these experiences that frighten the bejesus out of them? There is perhaps something we humans relish about the darkness, the unknown. We lean into it, flocking in droves to haunted houses and corn mazes. We huddle around campfires and spin ghost stories, clutching blankets up to our wide eyes.

Even in fiction that differs substantially from the horror genre, readers get frustrated if they know what’s going to happen. They don’t necessarily expect to be afraid in the same way as in a scary movie, but they do want to make discoveries. They want to gasp.

With the days getting shorter and darker, it is the perfect season to ponder the element of surprise in fiction. The word predictable is among the most dreaded and damning assessments of a novel’s worth. No one wants to write a predictable story. In whatever way makes sense in our chosen genres, we want to delight and thrill our readers.

Worried about failing to deliver the surprises that readers crave, new writers in the college workshops I teach tend to throw as many twists and turns as they can into their plots. Car brakes fail and roommates overdose and many, many, many unfortunate characters get shot. It is an understandable impulse to focus on flashy, observable action.

Without a deep comprehension of how surprise works in fiction, though, new writers can fall into the trap of deus ex machina, a Latin translation of a Greek concept known as “god in the machine.” In the Greek tragedies, the plots were sometimes resolved when the backstage crew rolled out a god strapped to a crane who would fix the seemingly unsolvable problems. This is not a “good” surprise in a story, nor typically are the bad brakes, overdosing roommates, and third-act shootings.

Why not?

What makes some surprises satisfying? What makes the sudden introduction of a magical deity in a crotch harness unsatisfying?

It goes back to the unspoken, unacknowledged “pact” or “contract” that the reader has made with the writer. The reader has agreed to enter willingly into the writer’s fictional world. She will pretend the writer isn’t there, and she’ll pretend the characters in the story are real. In return, she expects that the writer has a plan to take her somewhere interesting and unexpected, and the events will be plausible within the internal rules and logic of that world.

The reader realizes all along, of course, that the writer can run over the main character with a runaway tractor-trailer at any time or fry the character with a lightening bolt. But she expects better. She trusts that the events of the story will grow from the characters and the setting. She won’t read 200 pages about Ingrid’s gut-wrenching divorce, only for the character to get crushed by a fiery meteor. Now the meteor scenario might work if Ingrid, in her grief, seeks out a spot where a meteor is likely to land and steps into its path. This would be a choice on Ingrid’s part and would grow from the experiences in the story. But otherwise, a meteor pancaking Ingrid is likely to draw attention to the writer, not the character, and the reader may be taken out of the narrative. While the meteor certainly was not predictable, the overly imposed twist may not be believable. If there’s one thing a reader wants even more than unpredictability, it’s to believe.

In other words, if the writer does something that calls attention to the writing rather than to the story, the reader may feel that the writer has violated the contract. When I work with new writers, they often say something along the lines of, “I don’t want the reader to know about X (the clown, the aliens, the affair, etc.).” What they’re saying is that they want to create a surprise. I always try to remind them, gently, that it’s a good idea to shift their focus.

“Does it matter what you want?”

[Blank look from student. Blink, blink.]

“Try to change the way you’re talking to yourself about this. Instead of thinking about what you want, think about what the character knows about X (the clown, aliens, affair).”

The student’s forehead wrinkles in concentration for a moment, as if looking through a smudgy window at the fictional world. “Yeah…. I think… Larry doesn’t know about the clown. But he does know about the affair.”

“Those are great things to realize about your character. A story isn’t about what you want. It’s about what’s true for Larry.”

What I’m saying to the student is that sometimes what we want to be true in the fictional worlds we’ve created just isn’t. We might start out thinking it’s a cool idea to write a story about a character that jumps his motorcycle over flaming barrels, only to discover as we draft that his drinking problem is too great for him to engage in that particular activity. Characters take on lives of their own, and we ignore their realities at the story’s peril. If we impose situations into the story that are unrelated to the character’s psyche and decisions, the reader is too astute not to notice. The twists and turns are most satisfying, as Aristotle famously said, when they are “unexpected but inevitable.”

 Many horror fans say that the experience of those movies and books is “like a roller coaster.” Viewers and readers give themselves over to fear within a context that they know is safe. They choose to lose control in a controlled way. Much the same can be said for stories in general. They provide a means for readers to experience intense and even dangerous situations, as well as the emotions that accompany them, without the messy real-world consequences – much the way that rollercoasters allow us to fall without dying.

We writers hold our readers’ precious imaginations in our care. In this one regard, we must be steadfast and predictable. We must ensure the rollercoaster is structurally sound, its twists and turns connected to the story’s foundations, lest we drop the reader and break the spell.

If we are careless with surprises – Ingrid is incinerated or a blackout-drunk Larry jumps his hog over fifty flaming barrels and lands on secret clowns – the reader blinks up from the book and thinks, Well, that was a waste of time. This particular rejection is, for a writer, perhaps the worst kind of horror show.

The only fate less preferable might be that of a Martian assigned to observe movie patrons. How much would a guy have to screw up on Mars to earn that terrible gig? But that, I suppose, is a surprise for another day.



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. She will soon debut a new Imprint with Stay Thirsty Publishing entitled Unblended with a mission to “serve up stories, fiction and narrative nonfiction, pure of spirit, brimming with humanity.”

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.