Aristotle was a smart guy and, surprise, you can learn a thing or two from smart people. In his book Poetics—which is his take on the basics of storytelling—he talks about what he calls reversals.
Reversals are surprises that affect a storyline. They are what give stories complexity. There are large ones and small ones and, he says, the more reversals a story has, the more complex it is. Understanding what they are and how to use them will strengthen your storytelling.
What is a surprise?
Let’s take a quick jump over to the word “surprise”. What is a surprise? By the books, it’s an unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing. In writing, these surprises can astonish characters, audiences, or both at the same time. A surprise is a surprise. Doesn’t matter who’s witness.
To examine surprise, we have to start by breaking down the first part of the definition: unexpected or astonishing. These imply some change in direction. Two things here. For one, that change can be a small pivot or a complete one eighty. And second, to have a change in direction, things have to first head in the wrong direction.
If you plan to drive from New York to New Orleans, then drive from New York to New Orleans, there’s no surprise. But if you plan to drive cross-country, then stop to buy a house and settle down in New Orleans, that’s a surprising pivot. Now, if you plan on driving cross-country and end up falling in love with a woman in the Philippines, that is an amazing 180.
Moving to the second half surprise: they are events, facts and things.
Surprising events are things like car accidents, getting laid off, or winning the lottery. They can be as simple as showing up to a surprise birthday party or your dishwasher breaking after starting it. One thing to note is events happen in the present tense. The act of finding out an event that already passed would really be a surprising fact.
Surprising facts are things like finding out your partner is having an affair. Learning your great grand uncle was your best friend’s grandfather’s doctor is a surprising fact. Again, these can be life-changing facts such as finding out you’re actually the prophesied king of a strange race, or they can be minor facts that make you say, “Hmm, I didn’t know Racine rocks the roller derby rink.”
To make it less confusing to talk about, let’s go ahead and rename surprising things to surprising ideas. Think nouns here. People, places, and things you didn’t know existed, such as learning the Loch Ness Monster is real. A hidden gem of a restaurant in your neighborhood is a surprising thing. Surprising ideas are one’s that simply break norms: a purple goldfish in a tank full of normal gold ones; poignant and wise advice from someone who is usually an idiot; an advanced society growing in the fibers of your carpet.
These three types of surprises—events, facts and things—we can think of as different paints on our pallet. With them, we can illustrate pictures of varying complexity. We can paint a sprawling epic fantasy with thousands of surprises, big and small. Or we can paint a little poem with one surprise.
Just as colors on a canvas, each type of surprise can live and interplay with one another inside the same instance. Think about them in a very fluid sense. Finding out that a surprising event has passed can be a surprising fact in and of itself. That same surprising fact could stir up strange feelings that might be considered a surprising thing.
Take a restaurant in your neighborhood. The restaurant itself could be a surprising thing because of its unexpected combination of Cuban and Ethiopian cuisine. Is it Cuthopian? Ethuban? Learning that the owners of the restaurant used to be liberal oil tycoons from Wyoming would be a surprising fact. Some chef popping out of the backroom and yelling, “They’re here! Hide!” Would be a surprising event that caps off your interesting visit.
Why do surprises work?
Writing imitates life. Surprises in writing are so powerful because life itself is full of surprises.
People invented writing to capture speaking. Storytelling, along those same lines (pun intended), is an imitation of stories and the way they’re told in real life; plots being a mirror of how information is naturally revealed to us as we go about our days.
So, again, given that life is full of surprises, so too should stories be chock-full of them.
In life, people are natural-born problem solvers. We’re curious and love all mysteries, big and small. That’s why we’ll poke our heads around, peaking at the aftermath of a car accident. Or why we’ll chat about a coworker getting fired for weeks afterward, collecting everyone’s accounts of the incident. We’ll gossip about the new kid in school until we figure out why they left their last school.
Think about a good joke. There is always a setup and a payoff; a knock knock and a punchline with the audience having to ask “Who’s there?“somewhere in between. In storytelling, Surprises are the payoff to mysteries. Simple as that. Next, think about suspense for a second. Suspense is just the feeling we get when we know a mystery is about to get solved. It’s suspense that turns pages; that drives people to ask the ever-important question, “What happens next?”
As storytellers, we can manufacture suspense by using surprise correctly. The formula—although you shouldn’t use anything formulaically in writing, so yee be warned—is this: to create a surprise, we have to set up a mystery. A good setup promises the audience that that mystery will get solved. Setting up a mystery with a good promise will create suspense. Suspense turns pages.
Where do we start when setting up a surprise?
Before talking about mysteries and how to set them up, we have to first turn surprises into reversals. Aristotle’s reversals, again, are surprises that affect plots.
The biggest question to ask here is: how does the surprise affect a character’s decisions? Often, this has to do with their fortune in some way. As in life, characters are constantly going through bouts of good luck and strokes of bad fate. We can graph all this on a good vs. bad over time—stock-market-looking—chart. I like to call it life’s dramatic curve. Plots, then, are just snapshots of some section of a character’s imagined dramatic curve.
When a surprising event, fact, or thing changes a character’s fortune from good to bad or vice versa, that is a true reversal. More importantly, this change in fortune will prod them to take some kind of action, thus changing the plot.
Along with that, reversals must relate to the specific story you’re illustrating. In reality, we all have multiple good and bad fortunes we live through all at once every day. But when you tell someone about your weekend, the bill you need to pay is outside the scope of that current story. Same goes with fictional characters. They’ll likely have many stories available to tell. Remember, as a writer, your job is to tell one and only one story at a time. If you want to tell another story about that character, write a sequel.
Long spiel short, you can have the most interesting and amazing surprise ever in your mind. But if it doesn’t directly relate to the plot you’re working your character through, it’s irrelevant and distracting to your story. File it away for a rainy day and focus up.
Imagine gifting a surprising quirk to your main character’s best friend. Let’s say he’s deathly scared of flying. This means nothing if the story takes place solely within their office building. It also means nothing if the friend isn’t an integral part of the story. But, say, if the main character—for whatever reason—needs to get their friend across the country, that fear of flying would influence that plot, turning that surprising fact into a reversal.
Depending on the weight of the surprise, these reversals can be a major plot point or just some small conflict along the greater arc. Remember, life is full of surprises. Stories should be full of reversals, big and small.
Reversals, to simplify things, are the fundamental components of your story’s arc. They provide the twists and turns in fate that is your plot. These relevant surprises may act as the framework for your outline. Think like a detective novelist. You have to know the major reveals in order to appropriately parcel out the clues that lead to them.
Picture a super top secret surprise birthday party. The host—the writer, in this analogy—needs to know all the ins and outs of the event in order to hide it from the birthday boy; or the audience here. The host will have to coordinate all the guests—supporting characters—to keep their mouths shut, so the surprise doesn’t get ruined. It’s the host who employs people to help create a mystery.
How do we create a mystery? Well, really, we lie. That’s it.
In order for a reversal to be surprising, we have to start stories with a lie that both (a) leads the character straight toward the surprise and (b) keeps the character in the dark about that same surprise.
In short: What lie will get our friend to their birthday party without them knowing about their birthday party?
That’s the central question surrounding most major plot points. There are a lot of ways we can go about this lie and that, of course, is the fun of writing! That said, one of the easiest ways to ensure these major plot points are surprising is to use a red herring.
Que the red herring.
Red herrings in literature are diversions from the truth; distractions that guide people down the wrong path while making them believe it’s the right path. They are one of the fundamental tools at a writer’s disposal and are often overlooked completely. If your story is a magic trick, red herrings are the sleight of hand that makes the trick work.
You say, “Watch the cups and the ball,” to make your onlookers pay attention to the wrong thing. While you move the cups around on the table in exciting ways, you steal their watch and sneak it onto your wrist. Keeping the focus on the upside-down cups, you ask them, “Which cup is the ball under?”
When you show your wrist in plain view, they ask, confused, “Is that my watch?” Everyone laughs at how you duped them. You give their watch back and when they ask about the ball, because life is full of surprises, you tell them to reach into their pocket. That’s when they find like thirty balls, and the trick is over. Wow!
Red herring’s make the reader think the story is about the wrong thing. Then, when you reveal what the story is truly about, it’s a surprise.
To put it simple as possible: Set up a mystery by starting with a red herring. A good red herring is a lie that leads to the truth.
Red herring: Tell your friend you’ll be out of town for their birthday and ask them to watch your dog on Thursday night.
Truth: You’ll be setting up their surprise party that Thursday while they’re at work.
Because life is chock-full full of surprises: Your friend brings a date to your apartment on Thursday… Turns out, it’s your fiance. They bust in the door making out while everyone yells, “Surprise…“
Antagonists and archetypes can help paint the red herring.
When brainstorming good opening red herrings, it’s best to remember that stories are all about conflict.
Conflict involves an antagonist and a protagonist being at odds; having mutually exclusive goals. Stories generally surround one central conflict. That central conflict is often an enormous surprise where the antagonist and protagonist clash the hardest. Many times it’s the largest reversal where the protagonist thought they would win, but didn’t; where they felt they knew what was going on, but find out they didn’t have a clue. Most times we don’t understand the problem or the antagonist in full until this central reversal.
Vogler calls this central reversal The Crisis. In a three-act structure, it’s the midpoint. Every inciting incident leads toward it, and the emotional climax blossoms from it. It’s the surprise birthday party where you find out your fiance is cheating on you with your best friend. There’s more afterward, but that’s the big reveal.
It’s here we have to talk about character archetypes. Just as the types of surprises are paints on our writing pallet, so too are character archetypes. Where surprises help us illustrate our plot points, archetypes help us illustrate several things, the largest being the initial red herring.
For those who haven’t read Vogler’s work, you can think of archetypes as template-like roles that characters fill in stories. Each role serves a specific dramatic function. They are often natural and, as with everything in storytelling, are imitations of the flexible roles people play in everyday situations. Think of the archetype of the mentor. Some reliable person who the hero seeks wisdom from, often at the onset of the journey.
If the antagonists—your cheating friend who stole your fiance—creates the central plot-shifting surprise. Archetypes, then, are the pageantry that helps us distract from the antagonist. They are the party-goers who help keep the birthday party a secret. They are the fiance who we thought would never cheat on us.
Off of that, a lot of archetypes can be thought of as blemishes of the antagonist; they are the clues chauffeuring the audience toward the larger conflict; they are the devices we can use to spin the lies that lead to the truth. They are the brush strokes that paint the red herring.
The three I’ll talk about are heralds, shadows and shapeshifters. These are the archetypes who help ensure the surprise the most. They’re the best paints to help illustrate our initial red herrings. Use them to lead readers down the wrong path while delivering them to the correct location.
Heralds are characters, or things, that are the first signal of the looming antagonist. They could work for, be partners with, or be completely unaligned with the antagonist. They are the four horsemen who signal the apocalypse; the first person coughing before the epidemic hits; the coin the magician holds up while saying, “I’m going to make this disappear.”
This archetype takes on the hefty job of setting up the initial red herring. Writers often use them in or as the inciting incident. They are the rabbit that leads Alice down the hole without explaining why. Because its usual position sits at the beginning of the story, a chief responsibility heralds take on is creating suspense for the reader.
Heralds deliver promises—something Dan Brown talks a lot about—that tell the reader something is coming without telling them what is coming. Their job is to set up the mystery, and that’s it. They are a signal of the antagonist. Not a newsletter from the antagonist highlighting all the ins and outs of their devious plans. Heralds never reveal the problem in full. All they are responsible for is alluding to the central conflict. When they allude to the surprise without spoiling it, this sets up the promise that (a) there is a mystery afoot and (b) that mystery will get solved by the end.
Essentially, they have the job of saying, “Hey, the craziest thing is about to go down. I have no idea what it is, but trust me, it’s going to be nuts. You just have to keep reading to find out.”
Without a herald letting us know that a mystery is afoot, there’s no suspense that drives people toward the coming surprise. It would be like a comedian telling the punchline without the setup. “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”
A herald in the birthday party example may be your friend saying, “My birthday is next week, but I don’t think I’m gonna do anything for it.”
Shadows are blemishes of the real conflict. Mini antagonists in their own right who accompany smaller problems caused by the real antagonist. They are often emissaries of the antagonist, but they don’t have to be.
Most helpful to red herrings, they are antagonistic in that they are at odds with the protagonist, but they are never the real problem.
Many times, they are mistaken at first for the true antagonist. However, they are an initial problem that often infer that there is a larger problem looming overhead. They’re the henchmen who we see well before the villain; the stormtroopers we see before we even know Darth Vader is there.
We can use shadows to ensure the surprise by pinning the initial conflict on them. Make them out to be the end-all-be-all antagonist at the onset of the story. Eventually, the reader will come to find they are child’s play compared to the real conflict.
Back to the birthday party. An example of a shadow here may be your friend’s parents. They are antagonistic because they seem likely to spill the beans about the surprise party.
Shapeshifters—stealing from R. L. Stine—are characters who you start out liking, then end up disliking, and vice versa. Any character can be a shapeshifter. Shadows, heralds, mentors, allies, threshold guardians etc… it doesn’t matter. This is a reversal of character, as Aristotle would say, and audiences eat them up.
Remember, archetypes are not characters themselves. They are functions. Any character can be a shapeshifter and there can be many of them. Best friends can become enemies. Lovers can become distant. Shadows can turn out to be helpful allies in the end.
This can be a close coworker not backing the main character up during a walkout; the bubbly hippy no one suspected in a murder mystery turning out to be the true murderer; the space commander’s right-hand man who starts a mutiny on the ship.
Although shapeshifters are often not the main surprise in a story—though they can be—they almost always cause a giddy jaw drop for the audience. Writers can use this archetype to exaggerate the reversal. More importantly, they can be the biggest liars who help protect the initial red herring.
In our birthday surprise example, both the best friend and the fiance who get caught in an affair together are shapeshifters. Two shapeshifters in one central reversal! What a combo!
Surprise in a nutshell.
There are three kinds of surprises—events, facts and things—and we can use each in writing like different colors on a pallet. We can use those colors to illustrate stories to whatever degree of complexity we’d like. When a surprise affects the main character’s decisions—i.e. when they affect the plot—they become reversals.
Reversals are so effective in literature because literature is just an imitation of life. And in life, there are many, many surprises that happen all the time. There can be small and large surprises, and these mirror the small and large plot points in stories. Often, stories bookend or surround one central reversal or plot twist.
We can take that understanding of reversals and use it to build a loose skeleton of our plot. If we know the big plot twist, we can set up an opening distraction. This opening distraction is called our initial red herring. Initial red herrings are lies that lead to the truth.
The truth we’re distract people from is the central conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. We, as writers, can employ character archetypes to help distract both the main character and the readers from that looming conflict.
We can use heralds—signals that a problem is afoot—to set up the lie that leads to the truth. They are often deliverers of the initial red herring. Shadows are symptoms of the greater conflict. However, we can make them out to be the main antagonist at first to hide the true antagonist. Shapeshifters are archetypes that we can use as the key liars in our story. They are also a surprise in and of themselves and audiences love them (or hate them, but can’t get enough of them).
Readers want to be surprised at almost every step of the way. Surprises are one of the main reasons we read novels, love poetry, laugh at jokes, watch eight seasons of a tv show, take part in gossip.
Just remember, life is full of surprises. Make sure your writing is full of them, too.