Most popular fiction depends upon balancing the expected and the unexpected. A successful murder mystery works because it both plants clues that make the revelation at the end fair (expected) and redirects our attention so that the solution surprises us (unexpected).
Other than the charm of the writer's voice and the quality of the prose, what captures and holds readers is the delight of being surprised. Let's look at the different kinds of surprise that might occur in fiction and how they can be used.
Sometimes authors opt to shock readers. Things that suddenly appear — a man with a gun at the door – or go further than convention allows – impolite language, sex and violence beyond what's usual for a genre, the grotesque — can startle and disturb readers. These are the equivalent of shouting, "Boo!" or walking naked into school board meeting. Hard not to react to, but cheap and sensational without some level of context and justification.
This is not to say that it is wrong to startle readers. Shock is part of the emotional palette and can be used to change the rhythm of a piece or to open readers up to new ideas. In addition, a lot of humor depends upon shock.
Revelations go beyond identifying murderers. The twists and turns throughout novels dependend on revealing bits of information that both answer questions and raise new ones. It's frequently valuable to save the biggest revelation for the end of the story (or close to the end), but a novel that is continuously straight-ahead and full of expected developments is liable to be boring.
Lesser known facts can add to the fun of the story. Sometimes, these are details that fill out and change perspectives on what "everybody knows." Sometimes, they are reasonable explanations that subvert conventional wisdom. Or they can be as simple as "truth is stranger than fiction." One of the joys of Doctorow's Ragtime is the presence of historical figures who actually did some of the things that show up in the novel and who met each other in real life. This can be analogous to finding a puzzle piece that fits into a picture, completing it in a satisfying way.
There can be surprises as well that change the meaning of everything that went before. A familiar example is the appearance of the mostly buried Statue of Liberty at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes" movie. (This brought groans to SF fans, but it amazed most theatergoers at the time.)
At a deeper level, the true character of someone might be revealed in a story or an unsettling truth about life might be put forward after the writer has set us up to be vulnerable to it. James Joyce's epiphanies are good examples of these.
In popular fiction, there's nothing wrong with cheap thrills. They are the stock in trade of spectacles and magic shows. A good writer can use these directly to entertain or to lead readers to new understandings. But, with larger and more subtle intentions, a writer can deepen the appreciation readers have of what life has to offer.
How do you create the most effective and powerful surprises in your writing? That's something I'll explore in my next entry in this series.