One of the most basic forms of engagement is curiosity, what’s going to happen next? Surprises, judiciously used, can keep a story interesting, and prompt audiences to reconsider what they’ve previously read or thought. A surprise can either be a surprise for both audience & character(s), or a surprise for the audience alone.
Unexpected Complications & Consequences
A surprise for both usually takes the form of a twist, a new piece of information or an unforeseen consequence or complication. These are a fun way to create a moment of tension and force the character to react quickly, giving the audience a fresh glimpse into the character’s nature. Unexpected twists can also prompt audiences to reconsider the underlying questions and ideas being explored by the story.
For example, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back, Luke, and the audience, learn key piece of information, which puts the entire story in a new light.
A character’s choices must always be grounded in their motives, but characters feature complex and contradictory motives. In some cases that’s what makes a character so engaging, the rich inner struggle. Whenever a character acts “out of character”, it’s important to establish why. What unique or extreme circumstances triggered the character’s change in behavior?
For example, imagine a former teacher who is normally reclusive and anti-social, but when a young boy knocks on his door, the recluse lets him in, and takes him on as a student. Perhaps the boy is so determined, so defiant, that it impresses the reclusive teacher, or maybe the recluse saw the boy getting bullied, or maybe it’s as simple as “cause my dog liked you.” What’s important is that the audience can sense the reason, and has the opportunity to uncover it.
Sometimes characters surprise themselves, or lie to themselves. Sometimes characters don’t want to know why, but the audience will, and it’s always important to give them the opportunity to find out why, and how it relates to the meaning of the story as a whole.