I recently enjoyed the second season of the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, so much so that I then re-watched the first season. Along with the whimsical air and luscious period detail, the episodes are sprinkled with delightful surprises.
Here’s an example (skip to after the asterisks if you don’t want Season 1 spoilers). Midge, the main character, is a recently-separated 1950s housewife who aspires to be a standup comedian. And she’s good. She doesn’t deliver dandy jokes, but rather she tells (sometimes improvised) stories about her life. She’s real and raw and also quite funny.
Midge’s manager is trying to arrange for Midge to open for a famous female comedian, Sophie from Queens, so they go to see her act. Sophie is big and boisterous, wears an apron and carries a feather duster, cracking corny jokes about her weight and shabby life. After the show, Sophie invites Midge to visit her home the next day.
Midge is shocked to see that Sophie doesn’t live in Queens, but rather a stately Manhattan townhouse with a butler and servants. And she’s downright stunned to see that the real Sophie is slender, elegant, and snooty. Sophie explains that the only way a female comic can make it is to be a cartoon. A great surprise!
The next time Midge does her own act, speaking off the cuff, she reveals Sophie’s (carefully guarded) secret. Unplanned, she just blurts it out—getting laughs but also jeopardizing her career. Another great surprise!
Surprises are a wonderful element of storytelling. They’re like jolts of electricity that wake us up and keep us engaged. We say things like, “Wow, didn’t see that coming,” or “I can’t believe she just did that.”
Think of your favorite stories, in any medium, and I’ll bet you’ll find surprises—whether it’s a killer twist ending or an unexpectedly bold action taken by a character. So why not look for surprises in your own stories?
Here’s the thing, though. Surprises can’t be there merely for shock value. They have to make sense within the logic of the plot or the minds of the characters.
Sophie doesn’t act like her true self on stage because she doesn’t believe the public will accept a female comic unless she’s cartoonish and unattractive. And Midge blurts out Sophie’s secret because she’s angry Sophie feels that way and fears it may be true. The surprises make perfect sense.
You’ll find the best surprises by searching for your characters’ secrets and/or putting them in pressure-cooker situations. Do that, see what happens.
Really, the best way to find surprises in your story is to let the story surprise you.
President, Gotham Writers Workshop