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7 Ways to Add Surprise to Create a Best Seller That Readers Crave

Image Copyright © 2014 Joan Y. Edwards

Image Copyright © 2014 Joan Y. Edwards

“7 Ways to Add Surprise to Create a Best Seller That Readers Crave” by Joan Y. Edwards

Readers crave surprise. That’s the element that helps a reader stick to a story from the beginning to the very end. Therefore, every good story has the element of surprise. The books that incorporate the most surprises are best sellers.

A surprise is when something unexpected happens that is far from what the reader thought would happen. It adds tension and excitement and keeps the reader actively engaged and committed to your manuscript. Any surprise element must present an image in the mind of the reader. If a reader can’t see the image, they won’t see the connection you are counting on to make your story sell.

Many intriguing two-sentence pitches, hooks, loglines, and short summaries or trailers for books and movies, include or allude to one of these seven elements of surprise.

L. K. Hill quotes Marion Jensen’s view on surprise:Surprise in literature is something unexpected that evokes an emotional reaction in a reader.”

Beth Hill suggests that “you, the writer, include a revelation, introduce a new character, or devise an unforeseen event that is so unpredictable that it even surprises you.” So include unexpected consequences that surround your characters and have the element of surprise in them.

Tracy Richardson shows the powerful and surprising beginning of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:

  • I wish Giovanni would kiss me.

Tracy points out that this first sentence hooks you right away and her next sentence is a perfect contradiction.

  • Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea.

This beginning shows a good use of surprise.


Here are seven ways to add an element of surprise to your story:

  1. Humor is when you exaggerate the unexpected and sometimes using the power of three to create a funny situation. Humor is shown in action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description.
  2. Shock is when you exaggerate the unexpected so much that what happened is the complete opposite of what a reader thought was possible. It can be positive or negative.
  3. Contradiction is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description that shows when opposite emotions are present at the same time in a character or situation.
  4. Irony is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description which is the opposite of what a reader expects under similar circumstances.
  5. Twist is action, reaction, consequence, dialogue, and description which is the opposite of what a reader expects in this genre under similar circumstances. I think of a twist as having to do with the plot.
  6. Revelation is when you reveal secrets or previously unknown information in your story.
  7. Introduce a new character who is unpredictable in a way that adds tension and validity to the theme of your story.

Here are seven three best-selling books that are filled with surprises:

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  3. The Witness by Nora Roberts
  4. The Firm by John Grisham
  5. Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket by Barbara Park
  6. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, Betsy Lewin, and Randy Travis.
  7. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Readers crave surprise. Incorporate the elements of surprise in your stories and you will have a best seller because it has what readers crave!

Here are three mostly true stories from a few encounters in my life. They are first drafts. I hope you enjoy them. Each of them contains at least one element of surprise. Maybe more.

Expected and Unexpected

While I was in college during the summer months, my grandmother in Ohio loved for me to come unannounced. One Friday afternoon I left Western Carolina College in Cullowhee, North Carolina at 2:00 p.m. and arrived in Eaton, Ohio about 2:00 a.m. about five hours longer than I planned.

I knocked on Mother Meyer’s front door. Several minutes went by. I didn’t hear any sounds from inside the house. Then I heard a key turn as someone unlocked the door. As I stood there with my overnight case, a man I had never seen before peeked through the open door.

“Hello. Is Mother Meyer here?” I asked.

“No, she’s not.”

I proudly stated, “I’m her granddaughter, Joan.”

He looked at me like so what.

“My daddy is John Bernard Meyer.”

No signs of recognition on that man’s face. I thought maybe he’d know my Mother. Therefore, I tried again. “My mother is Ethel Meyer.”

The man with slightly balding hairline crossed his arms, “I don’t know them.”

I pointed to the first door on the left. “Mother Meyer usually lets me sleep in that room.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere. Visions of the nearby motel Mother and I stayed in with bugs crawling everywhere loomed in my head. My face grew white as a misty fog.

“I am John Campbell, your Aunt Betty’s husband. We got married last month.”

“Is Aunt Betty here?”

“She’s asleep.”

“Oh,” I said emotionally wilting into a small pile of rocks and sticky briars.

Then a warm smile donned his face. “Mother Meyer went to visit her daughter, Bea for the weekend. She’ll be back on Sunday. I see that you have your suitcase so you must have planned to spend the night. So come on in.”

I said, “Thank you very much.”

I moved quickly in the bedroom and closed the door. I shouted on the inside, “Thank you, Lord. I don’t ever want to do THAT again.”

That was my last surprise visit to my grandmother’s house.

Who was the most surprised person in this story?

Did I learn my lesson about surprise visits? My lesson came in two installments; one for each side of the family: Meyer and Bruffey.

Surprising Aunt Martha

One Friday in October, I decided to visit my Aunt Martha Bruffey in Kinston, North Carolina. She loved for me to surprise her by coming out of the bedroom in the morning.  Aunt Martha and Uncle Vernon always left the doors unlocked so I would come in through the back door and sneak quietly into my cousins’ bedroom. I’d sleep on a cot there and in the morning, I’d come out of the bedroom into the hall. Aunt Martha would give me a great big hug and say, “What a nice surprise! I am so glad to see you.”

I drove nine or ten hours from Cullowhee, North Carolina to get there. I parked my gray 1950 Plymouth in the driveway and carried my overnight case around back to enter through the back door.

When I got around back, there was a new garage attached to the house. The back door I used to sneak through was hidden inside the breezeway structure that joined the house and the garage. The garage had a door so I twisted the doorknob to the right and pushed it, but it was locked and did not budge a millimeter.

Feeling a little frustrated, I walked to the side door, turned the knob, and pushed on it. Much to my dismay, it was locked, too.

But wait, there’s hope for me. There was still the possibility that the front door was not locked. When I turned the knob and pushed on it, it was locked tighter than a fat lady in a thin girdle.

I didn’t savor the idea of sleeping in my car because wire springs had sprung through the cushions and were not very comfortable. Surprising Aunt Martha wouldn’t be as much fun if I banged on the door and woke her up. She might be a bit grumpy. I didn’t want to scare my three girl cousins, so I stood in front of the four boys’ window on the side of the house. All four of them were sound asleep.

I took a deep breath and knocked on the window.

My oldest cousin woke and said, “My gosh, what’s going on out there?”

He shined a flashlight and saw me standing outside the house lonely and sad.

I spoke softly so I wouldn’t wake up Aunt Martha or the girls. “Please unlock the front door so I can come in.”

When the lock on the front door clicked, he opened it and said, “Joan, what a big surprise!”

“Not as big a surprise as I was to find all the doors locked.”

My cousins fixed up a cot for me so I’d have a place to sleep.

The next morning, Aunt Martha was thrilled to see me. She gave me a big hug and said, “What a nice surprise! It’s so good to see you.”

I was the most surprised person during this visit. The locked doors put a brake on future unannounced visits to relatives. But, I went many times after I told them I was coming.

What was the irony in this story?

Who did I surprise?

How do you think my grandmother and my aunt felt when I didn’t surprise them with visits again?

The Most Nervous Person at the Airport

One time, my friend, Henry, flew into Charlotte to help his boss determine the value of his latest acquisitions for a coin show. Larry asked me to meet him at the airport the next day. He told me his American flight to St. Louis took off at 2:10 p.m. and asked me to meet him about 1:00 p.m. so we could visit before his flight.

I left home an hour early to take notes on the body language of the most nervous person at the airport while I waited for Larry to arrive at his gate of departure.

Men, women, and children of varying ages amused me with their talk and their movements, but they was no sign of nervousness. Instead, moods of calm and excitement filled the air.

One o’clock came, but Henry didn’t.

One-fifteen, no Henry. I listened carefully to the messages over the intercom. None of them said, “Would Joan York please come to any agent at American Airlines?”

One-thirty, no Henry. I paced back and forth near the gate. I anxiously checked the long hallway for a man running to catch his flight. Everyone walked leisurely like they had more than enough time to get to their gate for take-off.

One-forty-five, no Henry. My heart beat a little faster.

As each moment passed, my thoughts went haywire. “What if something’s happened to him? What if he’s been in a car wreck?”

Two o’clock, no Henry. I patted my foot.

The gate clerk called passengers to board the airplane, no Larry. My saliva was so thick, it almost choked me.

The plane took off.  It watched it taxi away from the building without Henry.

They changed the flight numbers on the bulletin board. I twisted my pen like it was a baton. I wrote below “Who was the most nervous person I observed at the airport?”

The answer was “Me.”

Larry called me the next day.

I said, “Where are you? Are you okay?”

He said, “Early yesterday morning, my boss asked him to stay an extra day.”

My response was choppy and sharp, “Why didn’t you call me and let me know? Why didn’t you have the airlines page me?”

Larry said, “I called American Airlines and asked them to tell you.

“Humph! I listened with keen ears to all notices from American Airlines pages. None of them had my name in them.” I didn’t believe him.

“I’m going to take the same flight tomorrow. Will you meet me there at one o’clock?”

“No. The only place I’ll meet you is if you come to my house.”

He said, “That’s a fine way to treat a friend,” and hung up.

I never saw him again. He called wondering if he could spend a week with me while he went to a coin show.

I’m sure you guessed my answer. “Indeed not.”

All was not in vain because I learned many signs of nervousness and I had the wisdom to follow my gut feelings to end that relationship and any others in the future that made me nervous.

What emotions do you think usually precede, follow or go side-by side with nervousness?

What body language means nervousness to you?

What solves nervousness or makes it go away?

I hope my three stories helped you see how an element of surprise can hook the reader’s attention in a story. I hope it sparks an idea to use with your own stories. I think writers may crave surprise, as much as the readers. Let your imagination run around the possibilities. Readers crave surprise. Give it to them. Put multiple surprise factors in your manuscript. “If you put surprise in your story, readers will come.”

FREE GIVEAWAY (This offer is over. Please check later blogposts for more giveaways)

I am offering a free critique of the first 1000 words of a manuscript as a gift for responding with a comment about this blog post. Tell me your favorite surprise, shock, contradiction, twist, an unexpected consequence, or irony in my stories and/or your favorite book or movie between now and midnight Thursday, October 2, 2014.  Random.org will choose the winner. I will announce the winner in a new post on Friday, October 3, 2014.

Believe in you and your writing.
Celebrate all that you’ve accomplished: both the big steps and the little ones.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

Copyright © 2014 Joan Y. Edwards


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Never Give Up image
12 Affirmations for Writers.



  1. “Add a Twist to a Story,” http://www.wikihow.com/Add-a-Twist-to-a-Story.
  2. Annie Gracie. Writing Romantic Comedy,” 2001, http://www.annegracie.com/writing/comedy.htm.
  3. Beth Hill. “Include Surprises in Your Stories,” April 16, 2012, http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/04/16/include-surprises-in-your-stories/.
  4. Bronwyn Hemus, “Hook Your Readers, Six Tried and Tested Tips,” March 7, 2013, https://www.standoutbooks.com/hook-your-readers-six-tips/.
  5. Cheryl Klein. “Springing Surprises,” http://www.cherylklein.com/surprise.html.
  6. Christie Craig and Faye Hughes. “Add the Element of Surprise,” http://www.netplaces.com/writing-a-romance-novel/the-last-polish/add-the-element-of-surprise.htm.
  7. Elizabeth Spann Craig, “The Element of Surprise,” Mystery Writing Is Murder (blog), August 18, 2011, http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2011/08/element-of-surprise.html.
  8. K. M. Weiland, “5 Ways to Write Killer Plot Twist,” July 28, 2013, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/07/5-ways-to-write-killer-plot-twist.html.
  9. L. K. Hill. “How to Use the Element of Surprise to Better Your Writing,” http://lkhill.blogspot.com/2012/09/how-to-use-element-of-surprise-to.html.
  10. “Make a Surprise Ending to Your Story,” http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Surprise-Ending-to-Your-Story.
  11. Susan. “How to Use Humor Effectively,” http://www.write-out-loud.com/how-to-use-humor-effectively.html.
  12. Tracy Richardson. (First Sentences) “Where It All Starts,” Article Archive, Just about Write.com, 2010, http://www.justaboutwrite.com/A_Archive_WhereItAllStarts-Richardson.html.
  13. Victoria Mixon. “5 Ways to Make Your Novel Unforgettable,” http://victoriamixon.com/2010/09/13/5-ways-to-make-your-novel-unforgettable/.
  14. Zara Altair. “Twist the Predictable: Create Plot Twists to Enrich the Story Line,” December 20, 2010, http://storybodyguard.com/2010/12/20/twist-the-predictable-create-plot-twists-to-enrich-the-story-line/.

11 Responses

  1. Joan,
    Thanks for sharing your stories. They were fun and full of surprise. I’ve never experienced surprises quite like these. I did plan a surprise party for my husband’s birthday one year. I invited his and my family. It came together without a hitch, but I’m sure I could create some fictional ones for retelling.

    The story you shared about the friend reminded me that we often don’t have to leave home to find what we’re looking for.

    What a nice gift for those who have stories of their own to tell.


    • Dear Linda,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked the stories and that they surprised you. The only thing I changed to fiction was the name of the friend and anything when my memory might have forgotten the exact details. I hope they do encourage others to share stories of their own. I remember one surprise party that was planned for a person and he went out of town that day, so the people partied on without him.

      Live, Write, Laugh, Love,
      Never Give Up


  2. Hi, Joan,

    This is a very helpful blog post. I especially liked your story examples. I enjoyed your surprise visits to family .

    I think you were the most surprised. Joan, you could have been shot as an intruder!

    Thanks for this post.




    • Dear Janis,
      Thanks for reading my post and writing your sweet note. I’m glad you liked my story examples. You are right; I was definitely the most surprised person in my stories. Funny how times change and some things are no longer acceptable or possible.

      I hope these tips help you add surprise to your stories.

      Love, Joan


  3. Hi Joan,

    Thank you for sharing your stories! I remember paying a surprise visit to one of my cousins in childhood, but everyone in the house was out, so we just came back 😦 Needless to say, haven’t tried surprising relatives after that.

    I read ‘Gone Girl’ recently and thought that it had a very well executed twist. I think the best surprises in a novel are when they make you look at everything you’ve read up-to that point in a completely different light.


    • Dear Nishi,
      Thank you for writing and sharing your own “surprise” story with me. I like the way you defined a surprise as something in a novel that makes you look at everything you’ve read up to that point in a completely different light. That is an awesome explanation. I hope you’ll come back and read more of my blog articles and leave other comments. I enjoyed talking with you.

      Celebrate you today.
      Never Give Up


  4. Well Joan you’ve done it again…..You have amazed me with the way you bring ‘surprise’ into a story. Each of your short stories kept me wondering what was happening and why on earth didn’t someone tell you about the changes taking place.

    And, by the way….speaking of surprises, what a nice surprise to have met you at the SCBWI conference in Charlotte, NC last weekend. One never knows who they might be sitting beside until they speak. It was indeed a pleasure to have met you.

    I’ll never give up thanks to you!


  5. Dear Carole,
    Thank you for writing. I have been a little lonely here. It was so great to meet one of my subscribers and viewers in person. Seeing your face light up when you saw my name on my business card was priceless. That meant a lot to me. Thank you again for subscribing to my blog.

    I’m glad that my short stories kept you wondering what was happening and why on earth someone didn’t tell me about the changes taking place. Communication is a wonderful gift. This was back before computers, emails, and Facebook. Many families only talked on the phone at reunion time. I’m glad you liked the stories. Maybe I’ll write a memoir or an autobiography. Perhaps just the happy part of my life. I don’t want to dwell on the unhappy parts.

    I’m glad that you’ll never give up! Hip Hip Hooray for you, Carole. Good luck with your writing. May you be published soon.

    Never Give Up


  6. There were four people who left comments on this article:
    1. Linda Martin Andersen
    2. Janis Silverman
    3. Nisha
    4. Carole Hopkins Balent

    Random.org chose number 2, therefore, Janis Silverman, you won the free 1000 word manuscript critique. Thank you to each one of you who was kind enough to leave a comment.

    I’ll announce this in a separate post. You can reply to it.

    Never Give Up


  7. Hi Joan,
    I am catching up on my blog reading–this is a fabulous post! I especially love the story about how your surprise trip to your Aunt Martha’s house turned into a big surprise for YOU! Thanks for sharing these stories and tips!
    = ) Becky


    • Dear Becky, Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked how I ended up being the most surprised person in the Surprising Aunt Martha story. Funny!

      Love, Joan


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