There are good surprises and then there are bad surprises. An example of a good surprise is when my husband stops at my favorite bakery and brings me home a box of cookies. An example of a bad surprise is when my four-year-old son comes into my room at 7:30 on a Sunday morning, says, “Mommy, I don’t feel good,” and then gets sick all over the carpet.
In general, I’m not a fan of surprises (especially the ones involving kids with stomach ailments). I like to know exactly what’s going to happen long before it actually happens. I once worked with a guy who refused to find out anything about a movie before he went to see it. He’d show up at the theater and pick a film based strictly on the title. To this day, that method still boggles my mind. What if I tried that and ended up watching a three hour movie about how car manufacturers make drive shafts? No thank you.
But as long as I know the basic plot of a film or book, I absolutely love twists and turns within the story, just as long as the sudden change is believable. I don’t want to spend three hundred pages of a book trying to figure out who the killer is only to have the protagonist’s evil twin show up in the last ten pages with nary a hint that he even existed. No, I like surprises that really wouldn’t have been such a shock if I’d been paying more attention. I love that initial feeling of “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” followed by the realization that all the clues were there and I hadn’t put them together.
It’s that ability to provide details without revealing too much information that lets me know I’m reading a well-crafted mystery. Agatha Christie was a master of this technique. She could take fifteen seemingly random bits of information and put them all together to unmask a killer in a way that always seemed so obvious once she explained it to the reader.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a genius in this regard. Not only would he liberally sprinkle important details throughout a story, but then Sherlock Holmes would patiently explain which pieces were important to Dr. Watson. All this, and I’d still be surprised when I found out what happened.
But that’s what makes mysteries so fun. Can I figure out the answer to the puzzle? Or will it be a surprise? I'm never sure which way a story is going to go until I get to the end.