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I'm writing an action scene and I'd like for the POV and the readers to realize something at around the same time. Specifically, why another character is physically stuck and unable to escape an advancing danger.

If the readers figure out that it's the POV's fault before the POV does, they might wonder why the POV is so stupid, or blind, or whatever, even though I'm going to great lengths to show the character as being clever. If, on the other hand, the POV realizes something that the readers couldn't've foreseen, it will look like the author hasn't done his job setting the scene and placing hints.

So, ideally, the reader and the POV would figure it out at the same time. The problem is that I as the author know the surprise, so I can't pretend to figure it out. I know there are authors out there who are really good at surprising the reader with things the reader should've already figured out. Are there strategies for achieving this?

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3 Answers 3

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A common approach is to give the detail, but to disguise its significance. Mystery writers are masters of this.

One trick is to insert the relevant detail in the middle of a long list. Readers tend to skim long lists. They read the first item and the second, and then skim to the last. So you can hide the clue in plain sight by writing it as the fourth item in a list of six or seven.

Veteran mystery readers are onto this trick. But mostly you can get away with it.

In general, study a few mysteries. Notice the moments where the sleuth has that nagging feeling of having missed some important detail. Later, when the sleuth remembers the detail, go back and find where it first appeared in the text. Notice how the writer disguised the significance of the detail, and how the viewpoint character noticed the detail but overlooked its importance.

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Do you have any suggestions for examples to study? –  whiterook6 Jul 6 at 21:27
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Any of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories. –  Dale Emery Jul 6 at 21:40
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J.K. Rowling can be used as an example of this, too, I think. She included so much extraneous, fun, world-building information that it was difficult to tell (especially in the early books) which pieces would actually become important to the plot. Such a method wouldn't work for every style, but it worked for her. –  Anna M Jul 7 at 1:05
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@AnnaM such as hiding Nicholas Flammel in plain sight - even the reader saw the name! –  Liath Jul 7 at 8:16
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@whiterook6 JKRowling hid one of the horcruxes in Book 5, when everyone is helping to clean out the credenza in the living room before school stars. They toss Slytherin's locket into the rubbish heap, where Kreacher finds it later and it becomes a macguffin in Book 7. I actually dropped my copy of Deathly Hallows to scramble to find Order of the Phoenix to look that up when I realized it. Amazing setup. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 7 at 13:11
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When I think about books which have truly surprised me with unexpected discoveries, they are usually books that avoid obvious genre tropes. When Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, readers were probably surprised along with Elizabeth to discover that Mr. Darcy was actually a much better man than George Wickham (Jane Austen did prepare the ground for this by allowing Wickham to show that he was a bit inconsistent in ways that Elizabeth only noticed later). However, now that the boy-meets-girl-they-hate-each-other-oh-look-they-are-in-love trope has become so universal, readers will assume that the heroine is going to fall for the first apparently rude but handsome fellow with whom she exchanges witty banter.

So, as one method of surprising readers, do something that goes against genre tropes. Maybe the handsome man who banters with the heroine turns out to be kind of a boring fellow upon further acquaintance. Maybe the plucky protagonist who enters the boxing tournament against all odds, in a desperate bid to clear his father's farm from debt, actually loses. If you build up the event in a fairly normal manner, readers may miss your clues because they expect a typical outcome.

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In addition to Dale's excellent answer, try ending a chapter or a scene break on a phrase or sentence which can be slightly misinterpreted.

The example I'm thinking of is from Anne McCaffrey's Moreta. Briefly, people ride dragons, who have the ability to teleport in both time and space. When teleporting, the dragon is said to "go between," which is a place of blackness and cold, for three to five seconds. Too long, however, and the dragon is "lost between" — they never arrive at the destination.

SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK'S END

Near the end of Moreta, one of the characters has been doing multiple time-hops (on the order of 15-minute increments) on an old dragon who isn't her bonded dragon. She's exhausted, the dragon is exhausted, and she gives the dragon the order to teleport without really clearly giving the dragon spatial and temporal coordinates.

Moreta looked at the sun and wondered with a terrible lethargy what time it was.

"Let's go, Orth."

They went between.

And scene break.

I realized there was something... off about that the first time I read it. I flipped forward several pages (cheating) to see if I was right, because something didn't sit right about that. And yes, it turns out that they go between and don't come out again.

The phrase "They went between" is used all over the place in the Dragonriders series, but not on an ominous, scene-ending note like that. That's how the reader is surprised.

So take something innocuous like "They went through the door" or "over the hill" or whatever and set it up so that the reader doesn't realize until a moment later that it's much more than simply going through a door.

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