The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon


Roses are red,

Violets are red,

Shit, the garden’s on fire!

‘Storytelling is joketelling.’ So says one of Pixar’s key creative lieutenants, Andrew Stanton, in his TED talk of 2012. The weapons of all great jokes: leading us to believe the rabbit will jump out of one hat then watching it explode out of another – that golden element of shock, awe, and the unexpected, are exactly the same as the ingredients of any story worth its salt since time immemorial. In an age where technology can seemingly accomplish anything, the cheapest, most awe-inspiring special effect of all is still the humble surprise. People haven’t changed much since the modern forms of storytelling were born: most are still waiting to be shocked, mystified, and amazed, just as they were when they were children, when the most mundane bedtime stories left them filled with wonder. When we expect a story to turn left and it actually turns right, the world feels just a little different. Suddenly, two hours of film, or four hundred pages of a novel, could contain anything. That’s a golden moment.

A healthy dose of surprise and the presence of the unexpected can lift even the poorest story’s standing. Deep Blue Sea is not a work normally held up as a shining example of cinematic excellence, but buried within the corny dialogue and shoddy effects work there lies a moment of surprise which remains burned in my brain to this day. I’ll never forget the time, late at night after a heady period of channel-surfing, that I came across this pretty laughable film, with Samuel L. Jackson’s obvious battle scarred alpha male leading the other delinquents out of danger. So far, so Hollywood.

And then Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark.

deep-blue-seaI couldn’t quite believe they’d killed him off. He was the lead, surely?! That moment made me pay attention, it injected those bloody ridiculous CGI sharks with some genuine menace, and suddenly my toilet break didn’t seem so urgent. If they can kill Mace Windu, what else can they do?! It sticks out of my recollection of good old Deep Blue Sea, like a shining diamond in a steaming pile of horseshit. And that moment, for me, elevated the film. It might have been critically gnarled up like the Great White’s prey, but, dammit, that one pure, undiluted moment of shock, it was worth the two hours of shlock. It convinced me, just for a few moments, that anything was possible in the ridiculous, sharks-with-Stephen-Hawking-IQ world of this film. That’s impressive, and it’s what stories must truly be about, surely? When we as the audience think we know everything about the world, with our IPhones and twenty-four-hour news cycle and instant coverage, can there be any more beautiful moment in a story than the one which shakes you out of your all-knowing malaise and makes you believe, even for a second, that there’s still some mystery left in the world?

Stanton addresses this in his talk, saying ‘if things go static, stories die, because life is never static.’ Life rarely runs in straight lines, surprise is around every corner. When you walk down the street, you’re surprised; you never see exactly what you expect; you’ll see someone too fat, too thin, too this, too that. You’ll see two people holding hands that look like they come from different worlds. You’ll see a new takeaway opening on a corner you’ve wandered past for years. Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. We train our psyches to cover all bases, leave nothing to chance, have everything available at the touch of a button, the click of a mouse. But no matter how hard we try, life remains a true mystery, it is perpetually unpredictable. Which is why the best stories are never predictable.

happy-sad-maskAs Stanton says, a ‘static’ story is a dead one, because it is fundamentally different to the way our lives are constructed. The road between A and B is never a straightforward one, in fact we often seem to find ourselves traversing wearily through the rest of the alphabet, head-butting all the way to Z and back, before we finally reach the coveted B. The world exists not in solid blocks of black and white but a kind of messy, all pervading ocean of grey. No one is all good or all bad; I’m sure the worst tyrant is capable of a moment of pure benevolence and sweetness; likewise, Mother Teresa probably had days when she barked at her underlings ‘just bugger off and leave me alone will you?!’, or words to that effect. Sometimes people laugh, sometimes people cry, in fact many probably do both on certain days. Life is a lot stranger, and less easy to compartmentalise, than we think. It is a composite of laughter, tears, confusion, love and pain; in fact, I think most people’s days are a kind of soup of all of these. The unexpected is everywhere, everyday, which is why the stories that tap into it not only ring the truest, but entertain us the most.

Stanton’s employers, Pixar, are masters of this. Watch any Pixar film, and there’ll be a moment you didn’t expect, when the story seems fresh and new and untouched, but still timeless. In Stanton’s own Wall-E, for example, when the character shows his new love EVE the leaf he discovered amongst the wreckage of Earth, we think we know where things may be going; she may be unimpressed, or she may change her mind about our little hero. What we don’t expect is what actually happens, which is that she takes the plant and suddenly shuts down. We realize a larger plot point is at work. Suddenly the story’s framework is shaken, and we are led kicking and screaming down a different path entirely. The tone changes from that point on, and the audience has no choice but to submit and go along with it. The ride we thought we were on becomes something quite different. That’s a special moment in any story.

Carl UpLikewise, Pixar can throw us curveballs in the very conception of their stories; Up, for instance, is a story about an old man, about to be evicted, who makes his house fly by tying thousands of balloons to it, somehow ends up in Peru, with a little boy scout along for the ride, and they encounter a pack of talking dogs, a rare species of bird and an old explorer who has been scavenging in the jungle for years. This is a mad cocktail of flavours: the mundane, the fantastical, the heartwarming and the mysterious. A true original, and one which mimics the rhythms by which human beings live every day of their lives. Our days are often mundane, sometimes fantastical, occasionally heartwarming and always mysterious. Pixar spins a golden tale full of surprise with Up, and the crazy scenarios the film dreams of sound like the opening line of a joke, leaving the audience to sit in suspense to see what kind of punch-line will be revealed. Once again, storytelling is joke-telling.

Take Breaking Bad, a television show which has permeated the public’s viewing consciousness like few others. Many reasons have been held up as the biggest factor in the show’s success: Bryan Cranston’s spectacular performance as Walter Whyte, his Shakespearean descent from plodding schoolteacher to drug kingpin, the show’s failure to ever produce a truly weak episode. I have a theory that the success of Breaking Bad is primarily down to none of these, although each has played its part, and instead rests in something far more simple, and far more timeless. It is that the show never does what you expect it to do. It actively shuns predictability at every turn. At no point is the viewer allowed to rest on their laurels, which is the inevitable highway to fatigue with any story.

Like life itself, the show is constantly twisting, turning, and twisting again. It is playful in its production. There is a moment in the second series when we see Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law holding up a picture of Walter with a wanted sign above it, and then a second later the camera changes angles and we realize that he’s announcing a collection for Walter’s cancer fund, and the wanted sign is relating to someone else. A beautifully simple, but incredibly effective, ruse. The show is full of moments like this, turning suddenly left-field in moments both incidental and profound. It wrong-foots you at every turn, and leads its viewer a merry chase through a potent mixture of red herrings, misunderstandings, and sudden plunges in the opposite direction, and all built on the simplest, cheapest storytelling device available: the humble art of surprise.

The show’s composition, as with its execution, is a bundle of elements, tones, and directions. It could have been a mess, but like Walter’s meth, it proves to be a perfect cocktail. The audience is offered a variety of differing angles into Walter Whyte’s world; his depressing life as a chemistry teacher, his family’s difficulties in caring for their son who is living with Cerebral Palsy, these things are enough for a drama in and of itself. But then we have Walt’s drug cooking, his ever-deepening involvement with the criminal underbelly of his city, his ordeal of living with cancer. All of these elements alone could make an accomplished piece of drama, but putting them together makes for a sometimes surreal, offbeat, never-before-seen product. It is mundanity fused with the fantastical, and then combined with any number of ten-a-penny American cop shows. It is a masterclass in audience manipulation, a consistently surprising composite, and as such it is never static. Just like life itself.

I often think film-makers, and storytellers in general, don’t get enough recognition. It’s hard to think of a creative work that has absolutely no elements of innovation, no surprise, nothing new in its DNA. Even in the dumbest action flick, there will generally be some element that is fresh and innovative waiting to be discovered, although it may be small and solitary. However, the truth is that telling a story is hard work, and some achieve the aim better than others. The stories that falter are the ones that are knowable from the beginning, the ones with no magic, or suspense. The ones with no hunger for the new or the unexpected are ultimately dead, as Stanton says, because they are static. The ones that succeed, however, turn us into children again. A child’s imagination sees no limitations, and if the story is fresh and surprising enough, neither will we as adults. Any good story will destroy limitations. The stories that capture the strangeness, the shock of being human, those are the superior examples of storytelling in our world. And why are stories themselves so important? The celebrated author Philip Pullman puts it rather more eloquently than I ever could: ‘Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.’

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. MR CARR

    I am one of the few people who do get plesantly surprised by movies. If I see a trailer for a movie and know that I am going to see it, I don’t watch anymore trailers for that movie. I never wikepedia plot lines, and I steer clear of the “*spoiler*” warning.

    • Clyde Phillips

      This might be my biggest problem with movies today. Surprises and twists and scares are the reason I love movies. I used to get excited about trailers before movies– but now they’ve become just 3 minute summaries of the exposition, climax, and end.

      • HunterWolfe

        MR CARR and Clyde Phillips, I couldn’t agree with you two more. Ten years ago, we didn’t have trailers. Today we have trailers for trailers!

        Karl Stewart once said that movie trailers can generally be divided into two groups: the ones that show one or two cool things, but hold off on all the rest, and the ones that reveal moments from all their biggest scenes. It shows how confident a company is in their product. If a movie is top-notch, chances are they released the former of the two types of trailers.

        Fast 6 is my go-to example of this. It was an enjoyable film, however, the trailer revealed the high-action moment where a car jumps out of an exploding plane – a moment that wouldn’t come until the second-to-last scene of the movie! The entire time I was watching the film, I knew that BIG, AWESOME moment was coming, and it, unfortunately, ruined the movie for me.

  2. Surprise definitely does matter. I usually don’t get surprised by tv or movies, so when I do they are definitely doing something right!

  3. Angelina Henderson

    I’m glad I’m not a film critic. Someone for whom the idea is more important than the drama, the intellect more important than the emotion. Films are primarily an emotional experience for the vast majority of the audience. Knowing anything of key events in a movie more than five minutes in to the film spoils it for me.

    • If knowing what happened makes you lose interest in the drama and get annoyed with others who are ‘in the know’ then I suppose this is the reason why many commercial fiction/plays/films are so shallow, display a staggering degree illiteracy, banality and stereotypes. Because all that matters is the plot.

  4. In my opinion, the plot twist is the single most integral storytelling technique. Most people think of “the big reveal” as what a plot twist is, but I find that plot twists work best when they are broken into smaller moments and sprinkled along the narrative.

  5. I agree, surprise is essential to any story. Yet I wonder how well this tracks back to our earliest stories (those extant)? Say, the Iliad of the Odyssey. I also wonder how the element of surprise gels with Arundhati Roy’s statement that “the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again.” (The God of Small Things). Indeed, that also seems to be an important element of story. After all, why do we go back to novels, television shows and films multiple times? Surely they no longer shock or surprise us.

    • A very good point. I guess it’s the experience people return for, that feeling of riding the rollercoaster again. As for surprises, they all add to that experience, so rewatching when you know what’s coming can be enjoyable in its own right too I think

  6. You need to go see The Lego Movie. It did everything this article is talking about, and pulled it off in spades.

    • I can’t wait to see it but it’s not been released in my country (UK) yet! Exciting though if it does what you say it does!

  7. Nice post. I love to read more posts where writers talk about story and creating them.

  8. I agree with every argument you made here! About Breaking Bad specifically: The wider swerve that, honestly, doesn’t really count, happens pretty much as soon as someone tells you about the show (or at least it did when my brother raved about it to me) – the fact that Walter, as the protagonist, cooks meth. I think what you said about the cop shows ties into modern audiences having a thirst for the new and different. You can flip on the TV at pretty much any point during the day, and chances are you’ll have at least 2 versions of CSI on, plus any combination of Bones, Criminal Minds, Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and an NCIS marathon, among many others. Shows like Breaking Bad, shows with a villain protagonist who still has valid reasons for doing what he does, a villain protagonist who still has an extremely well-rounded character, are a rarity in that soup of cop shows. It’s interesting and different to finally have a show told from the opposite perspective of all those cop shows.

  9. A lot of movies these days do not hold the surprise that they used too. Many of them you are able to guess what is right around the corner. That is why movies, and shows like mentioned above, that do take us by surprise hold our attention even after the movie ends. I am love that feeling that you describe, in that moment, when the surprise is unleashed and BAM – eaten by a shark. Who would have predicted that, who wasn’t on the crew to film it of course. I have to say that the shocks that get you every time are the best though, Gholam jumping out at you for example, or the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

  10. Candice Evenson

    Could have been titled: SPOILER ALERT 😉
    Surprise cracks expectations and reminds the reader that there is a story to be told, and only the writer can tell it. So, yes, a story relies on surprise. The true stories we choose to tell each other are bound to be motivated by that element because we wish to share it and make it new.

  11. Thanks for the read! I think that surprise is most definitely storytellers’ secret weapon, and also one of the driving contributors to the evolution of storytelling. When attempted surprises become predictable, the best storytellers will search for new means to surprising. I loved the quote you included by Philip Pullman “Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.” When we place this idea—the idea that the human experience is rhetorically constructed—and consider it alongside ideas about the evolution(s) of storytelling, we can glean telling thoughts on the potential evolutions of the human experience, I think. Good stories, as you write, can “destroy limitations,” and I think that this destruction is necessary for expanding the limitations of our reality experience.

  12. A very interesting post. Pixar are incredibly talented when it comes to story telling. Their twists and turns are rarely predictable – take the twist in Brave, I certainly didn’t see that one coming. One of my pet hates is critics revealing that the movie has a twist as, surely, the impact of the twist relies on us not seeing it coming.

  13. Jordan Neves

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always felt that twists and turns generally enhance a film or TV show (with some obvious exceptions). Breaking Bad was interested in this but didn’t become too reliant. Even the final episode aimed to surprise, but in a satisfying, non-alienating way.

    Great article.

  14. I agree, a story should per say, grab you! Pixar does seem to have an edge. I was once told when creating a story board we must have a climax, a moment of conflict, and then a resolve. Although I’ve watched many movies I’ve begged silently for the peace in the movie to remain, I know without the conflict I may not have loved it as I had. Great article indeed!

  15. Surprises are always a lot of fun and do serve to ensure that a particular piece of fiction breaks away from what one may call a mold. But I also think that it’s very important that a storyteller simply employs a surprise just for the sake of having one (in essence, red herrings). While they can at times be clever, I do find myself wishing that the storyteller had simply gone forward with the story as it was without any such interruptions. For example, the 2013 thriller Prisoners had a number of characters/situations that I thought would be nothing more than distractions but ended up being integral parts of the story. The surprise there was that the surprise actually mattered and played a part in the narrative. Surprises are fun, and when done well can make a film absolutely brilliant (Fight Club and The Usual Suspects are class examples), but if there’s no place for them, it’s probably best to leave it out.

  16. Good article. I love that you were able to include a lot of pertinent and interesting information to support your ideas.

  17. Personally, I find myself contemplating what I expect will happen next when watching a film, and if my assumptions are correct, I’m significantly less interested in it. On the other hand, if there’s an unexpected turn of events or a well-that-escalated-quickly moment, I enjoy it much more.

  18. Surprise can be a useful tool in comedy.

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