The Art of Surprise

The Art of Surprise

Over the years, I’ve learned about the importance of surprise in storytelling. Whether in a novel, a play, or a libretto, unexpected developments can delight and fascinate readers and pull them along on a narrative journey. 

Withholding information and then revealing it at the right moment is a skill that good writers have, especially those who write mysteries and thrillers. I love approaching the end of these so-called genre books and trying to guess the surprise that’s coming. 

Agatha Christie, my wife Yvonne’s favorite author, was a master at this. Her plots are as finely tuned as an antique watch, with works that fit together in a way that’s unexpected but completely logical. 

I had assumed that all mysteries and thrillers had this same feature. Then I read John Grisham. Grisham is famous as the author of legal thrillers, virtually all of which reached #1 on the bestseller list. He is as much the master of his genre as Agatha Christie was of hers.

However, as I realized several thrillers ago, his stories contain no surprises. It’s the oddest thing: He sets up some good characters and an intriguing situation, then simply lets them play out; the endings are as logical as Christie’s but are completely predictable. 

And yet we are riveted. 

I rediscovered this recently in reading his latest book, The Exchange: After the Firm. Compelling. Thrilling. But no surprise.

Soon after reading The Exchange, I picked up Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland and experienced the opposite: a nonfiction book filled with twists, turns, and surprises. 

I had heard Egan speak and read at last year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville and had been amazed and appalled to learn about the subject of his book, which is expressed in its subtitle: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them

It seems that in the 1920s, a reborn and reimagined Klan controlled the state of Indiana and had near-control of several other Midwestern and Western states, including Ohio and Oregon. The Klan’s vision of a conquered America was finally stopped by a lawsuit on behalf of a seemingly powerless woman, Madge Oberholtzer, against Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson. 

The final surprise: When Oberholtzer brought Stephenson to his knees, she was already dead from injuries she had suffered at his hands. Her testimony was given in the form of a sworn statement on her deathbed.


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