The Weapon of Surprise

by James Scott Bell

Today’s first-page got me thinking about strategic decision making in fiction. That’s just a fancy way of saying that on occasion we need to step back, be objective, think about the overall plan, and be willing to give something up if it makes the whole thing better (which is where the admonition to “kill your darlings” comes from).

We writers are in a battle—for a reader’s attention. If the reader guesses where we’re heading, and we go there, said reader feels a twinge of disappointment. If that keeps on happening, the result is boredom and the battle is lost.

One of our primary weapons is surprise. When the unexpected happens on the page it delights readers. It pulls them more deeply into the story. It creates a mini-mystery. In my workshops I use the acronym SUES—Something Unexpected in Every Scene. It doesn’t have to be big (like a corpse dropping through the roof). It can be a small as a line of dialogue or a glimpse of something odd.

So let’s read this opening page and talk about it on the flip side:

Dark Elements

Sophia sipped her fish bowl-sized piña colada and wriggled her ring finger in the sun. The delicious princess-cut diamond fractured and rearranged the light, sitting on a platinum throne and presiding over her left hand like an ice queen. The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he. She lowered her sunnies and watched her fiancée hoist himself out of the pool, breathless after only two laps. He paused to recover under the shade of a palm. If she squinted her eyes long enough and let them go blurry, she could almost see what he would’ve looked like at her age. Almost. But that was a long time ago.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought, deep down surely he must know that I’m not marrying him for love. Maybe he thinks his sparkling personality has won me over, or his irresistible wit? Maybe he thinks I have a need for security, or some kind of daddy complex? Whatever it was, he wasn’t questioning it.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

“What did I do to deserve you, darling?” he said, kissing her forehead.

“You must’ve been a very good boy in a past life,” she said, smacking him on his wet speedo-ed bottom as he walked past. What was it with men and speedos? she thought, the older and more overweight the man, the smaller and more fluorescent the pair of speedos he tries to squeeze himself into.

Sophia herself had been a very bad girl in her past lives, and she was about to be bad all over again. She stretched her toned legs to check her tan and picked up a glossy magazine from the side table. As her lover boy went inside to shower, Sophia turned to a story about Kim Kardashian’s un-airbrushed butt, captured in its full glory on her recent holiday to the Bahamas. As she flicked through the uncompromising images, complete with dimples, cellulite and all, she smiled to herself. Not so perfect after all, are you? she thought, and for a fleeting moment she felt guilty for taking delight in another woman’s imperfections. But then again, celebrities aren’t really real people, are they?

Something stung Sophia’s ankle and she squished the first mozzie of the encroaching dusk. There’d be more where that came from, but she didn’t want to go inside just yet. She liked to milk every last minute of the dying sunlight out of these hot, lazy days. Daytime was her time, when she could do as she pleased while he was at work. Then in the evenings she felt like a B-grade actress, trying to play the role of the besotted fiancée with conviction.

At least it never got cold here, she thought. The nights were balmy and humming with cicadas as warm breezes tickled the tropical leaves. Kiralee Island felt wild, like anything could happen. Maybe she should wait a while longer, she thought, a few months at least, maybe even a year? What was the rush? The sex was surprisingly good, after all, and he was nice enough. She’d planned for next weekend, but it felt premature. You don’t pluck an under-ripe fruit from the tree just because you’ve become impatient, you wait for exactly the right moment. Yes, she could wait a while longer before she killed him.


JSB: Before I get to the editing, let me say up front that I like this voice. It’s got attitude, which is essential. It’s also funny and wry in its observations. All terrific qualities. But I suggest the strategy here ought to be reconsidered for one main reason: getting that last line to pop.

By the time we read before she killed him we already suspect this character. She’s a gold digger. She’s cold about it, too, mocking the guy’s personality and attempts at wit. Indeed, we are told outright she’s been a “very bad girl” in her past (lives).

So when we read the last line we’re not really shocked. It’s more like, “Oh, okay. She is taking this guy to the cleaners, and she’s also going to kill him. I could see that.”

What I suggest, then, is a rewrite of the page taking out all the on-the-nose references to her gold digging. And the snarky attitude toward the man. Keep the reader guessing about this relationship. Make the guy attractive. In fact, by using more dialogue, give us a reason to start liking the fellow.

And then, boom, drop the last line. Now you’ve got our attention. In fact, you’ve got us hooked.

The thing about voice, which everyone talks about but no one seems to be able to define (with, perhaps, one notable exception) is that when it’s good (as in this example) the author can easily overdo it. There’s a temptation to show it off at the wrong time (which is what I mean about strategy).

Thus, the observation about the Speedos (should be capitalized, as it’s a brand), while amusing, tells us we’re not exactly dealing with a warm personality. Again, that takes the surprise out of the last line.

The Kardashian bit seems forced and, by this time in our cultural zeitgeist, rather obvious. It feels like it’s in there only to be funny. Again, the temptation is to let voice show off at the expense of strategy. Voice should be in service to story, not the story itself. I say this because I really find this author’s voice has great potential. In fact, several times as I wrote this post I assumed the author was writing in First Person POV. When you can get a First feel into Third, you’re really on the right track with voice.

Now to some editing matters.

The sun was retiring to bed, and soon so would he.

Confusing, as the he seems to refer to the POV character, Sophia. I thought it was a typo. I’d just cut the entire line.

He towelled down his greying chest. I wonder if he knows, she thought …

Several times in this piece the author uses she thought when it is unnecessary. When we are firmly in the character’s POV, we don’t need it. The problem here is simply that we’re not firmly there. The fix is simply to get us into the character’s perspective with something like this:

She watched him towel down his graying chest. I wonder if he knows, deep down ….

Then you don’t need she thought. We know who is doing the thinking.

There are four other instances of she thought that can simply be cut.

He came over to where Sophia lay on the sun bed, a polka dot bikini straining to cover her sensual curves.

That’s a POV switch (“head hopping”) as the observance of the bikini is from his perspective, not hers.

Bottom line for me: The voice is promising, but I’d like it to be more seductive at first. Lull us into the scene so we’re really impacted by that last line. After that, there will be plenty of time for wry humor. Just don’t let that overtake your main task, which is to keep readers happily on edge from page one forward.

Okay, friends, take over from here. I’m traveling today so may not get a chance to comment. Help our brave writer out.    

12 thoughts on “The Weapon of Surprise

  1. Every gold digger knows you never kill the guy until after you marry him. Curious as to why she would do it before – what would she gain?

    Fiancé (the guy) has one e.

    I agree with everything Jim said. I like the voice. I would read this.

    SUES – I love it. Going back right now to check for this.

    • Thank you, Sue, for standing up for fiance with one e. I actually had a knock-down drag-out discussion last night over dinner with someone who tried to defend fiancee as uni-sex. He claims it is in “general useage” for both sexes. No….it’s French. And if you add the extra E when talking about a guy, it’s wrong.

      Okay…hopping off the Nagging Nanny Grammar wagon now. 🙂

      Oh…I also liked this submission! Esp the voice. But agree with Jim’s surprise point. I love the kicker line and the fact the writer saved it for last. But I also saw it coming. This can easily be fixed…great potential here.

  2. Absolutely one e for “fiancé” (man who is engaged to be married). Two e’s for the woman.

    I have no idea what this means, and neither will a lot of other people. I recommend she look at Larry Brooks’ great critique from September 18 in which he warns agains purple prose and the dangers of an author trying too hard to “write in a voice”. Things like “The sun was retiring to bed” and “warm breezes tickling tropical leaves” can easily be eliminated to tighten up what is otherwise a pretty good opening.

    • Apparently, the quote I included didn’t make it onto the page. The quote is ” …she squished the first mozzie of the encroaching dusk.” Followed by my comment, “I have no idea what this means, and neither will a lot of other people.”

  3. Voice gets me every time. (The opposite is true–no voice and I stop reading.) I suspect this writer is not a newbie because voice usually takes time to develop. If s/he is a newbie, I am wallowing in green.

    I agree with all of the critique, and with the comment that there’s nothing to make us sympathize with this character. Perhaps a bit of sympathy coming from her about him, e.g., he’s aging and resents it, and then she thinks about her own aging and how it’s inevitable, i.e., anything to let the reader know that this woman has at least some empathy. Of course, maybe the writer has chosen to make the woman totally without empathy, but that’s a challenge all on its own.

    This is a writer with huge potential. I’d love to read the finished product, and that may well be the first excerpt I’ve felt this way about. (Thank you, Sir Winston. I no longer obsess about ending sentences with prepositions… except in my fiction.)

    (I speak French–definitely delete the extra ‘e’.)

  4. I liked the voice too, it felt authentic. I agree – the great line at the end had no impact as we already know she doesn’t like him and plans to leave.

    If he is supposed to believe she is in love with him and she’s putting on this great act for his benefit then why not let us see it. Instead of thinking about the Speedo and hitting him on the ass, let them interact. He has just gotten out of the pool – she could pull up the back of it covering his exposed crack and make a comment like “Honey I told you this is too small. Why is it the older men get the smaller their bathing suits are?” They need to interact, play for a bit, so when we read she plans on killing him, the reader can know how hard she is working to put on her act.

  5. A general question about surprise: Consider a story in which a young woman is searching for her father, for whom she only has an alias that he had used at one time. Is it OK that the reader suspects all along that he’s the one who killed her mother when she was five, as long as the woman doesn’t begin to suspect that? (We know it’s a murder mystery, but she doesn’t know she’s in that kind of murder mystery.)

    • Certainly that’s fine, so long as it unfolds in the right way. How you convey the info to the reader is the key. If you’re switching POVs, e.g. hers … the villain’s .. that’s one way. But you have to be careful not to make it seem that she’s dim for not picking up clues.

      Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a classic of the protag thinking things are one way until she finds out they are another.

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