Anticipation and suspense are more important than surprise in drama.
The real world surprises us all the time:
- Casey Anthony is acquitted of all charges, despite an inexperienced defense attorney and her utter inability to tell the truth about almost anything.
- A perfectly routine airflight ends in disaster in the last 30 seconds of the trip, even though no one is drunk, blinded, and the plane is in perfect physical condition. Some stuff just happened.
Cars wreck, someone wins a lottery, the king is dead. These events startle us, but they don't make good stories because there's no anticipation, and no suspense.
In a dramatic context, suspense and anticipation are twin engines that drive a story forward:
Anticipation: you know something's going to happen for sure!
Suspense: you're not exactly sure what, or exactly when!
When we see an angry woman clutch a kitchen knife tightly, then hide it behind her back, we're pretty sure something significant is going to happen. We're in a state of anticipation. When her husband walks in the door, trailing mud and being rude to her, we're in a heightened state of suspense--he's a jerk, and she's got a knife! What's going to happen? Until we find out who might be the object of her ire, and whether she's going to sneak up and stab him, wave it under his nose, or perhaps throw it despairingly into the sink, we'll feel that anticipation and suspense. Meanwhile, the writer works her keister off to hide the inevitable until the last minute.
Surprise, on the other hand, is a one-dimensional cousin of suspense and anticipation. Surprises just activate your startle reflex, unless the surprise is woven into the fabric of the suspense and anticipation.
What's that look like?
Think of Casablanca, where Rick's life is settled until an old girlfriend shows up. It's a surprise, throws him and his piano player Sam for a loop, but who really cares until it turns out she's married to the French Underground, and Rick's business exists at the whim of the Nazis. A surprise becomes a source of suspense and anticipation. We just know that situation won't plod along forever without something exciting happening.
The problem for me is that I grew up in a world full of surprises. Discontinuous events, from my father's frequent emotional outbursts (diabetes under poor control) to my mother's accidental death, for me the world was a place where things happen all the time for no good reason at all. This does not make for good drama.
I'm forever dropping surprises into my story simply because that's the way I've experienced the world. My editors and beta readers always try to find a polite way to say, "what's all this then?" Because we don't read to re-experience the terrifying randomness of a large world that couldn't really care less about us. It's our job as writers to provide some hint of meaning between the surprising events--the story.
Surprise in mystery stories is something to handle with even more caution. Surprise, the murderer is this character you saw once on page 57, and he did it for reasons the detective won't tell you until the very last pages of the book. That's just not fair, and no self-respecting reader will tolerate it. One of things that's hardest about writing mystery is making the end seem inevitable, while hiding it from view fairly. In my current work-in-progress, By the Numbers, the killer is both someone you suspect and someone you don't, someone important who isn't very visible. I only hope I'm playing fair with everyone! This last draft is an exercise in asking "am I playing fair?"
I once threw my copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at the wall because Dame Agatha had played fair, but abused my trust something awful. Of course I eventually forgave her. That's probably part of why I'm fond of the open mystery, the "why-dunnit" or "how-dunnit." Much easier on the ego!
What book can you remember that played fair, but barely--or maybe didn't play fair at all?