Surprise! How to Use Surprises to Keep Your Reader Reading

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Most writers understand that we need to hook our readers. Grab ’em and keep ’em reading!

I know that there are times that I’ve done it wrong – starting my story with a chase when it isn’t all about pursuit. When I read the work of new writers, I’m given a lot of shocking first scenes. There are fires and there are grisly murders. There is graphic violence.

The problem is that these hooks seldom work. I don’t know the characters which means I don’t care about them yet. That means anything grisly or gross is gratuitous. My reaction is more ewww than it is a desire to scroll down the screen.

How then do you make a surprise work? It depends on what you are writing.

Photo by mohamed abdelghaffar on

Picture books have all those wonderful page turns. One spread can set a situation up, the reader turns the page and SURPRISE! This can be an unexpected event or, if the publisher is willing, a format change. Pop-ups and foldouts change the limits of the printed page and give the writer more space to surprise the reader.

In older fiction the surprise can come from several different sources including events and characters. A character who betrays the point-of-view character can be a surprise but so can a character that we all assumed was a baddie but turns out to be an unexpected ally. Point-of-view characters face multiple set backs and some of these can be surprising. The reader wonders how the heck that happened and keeps turning pages to find out.

In nonfiction, there are multiple opportunities to surprise the reader. A nonfiction picture book can use the page turn. Facts can also surprise readers when these facts contradict “common wisdom” or the things that we so often think. Like fiction, nonfiction stories can also contain betrayal and unexpected alliances.

Surprises are a great way to keep the reader reading. Just make sure it isn’t shocking for no reason and that it works for the story, fiction or nonfiction, that you are writing.