Surprise! Surprise!

Lightbox for Jan 2 - surprise surprise

In the old days of Saturday afternoon Western movies, the Cavalry would often arrive at the last moment to save the day.

de·us ex ma·chi·na (dāəs eks ˈmäkənə,ˌdāəs eks ˈmakənə/); noun

  1. an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.

(“We” don’t do that in our writing, do we?)

There’s nothing as wonderful as a surprise ending whether it’s in a movie, a story, a book or a poem. They’re titillating so we love them.


As a writer, we have a responsibility not to make a fool out of ourselves by hauling in the equivalent of the cavalry to solve a story problem. That’s being just plain lazy.

Can you imagine how ripped-off you’d feel getting to the end of a crime novel to learn that Joe Blow was the murderer but he wasn’t even mentioned in the whole book until the very last sentence?

Far, far worse than learning that the butler did it.

“However!” she said, raising her index finger … The butler is so rarely used as the murderer anymore that it just might be a big surprise for our readers.


Call them what you will — clues, bread crumbs, foreshadowing, warnings, signals — they are vital to any genre’s surprise ending.

So we set up clues all along the way right under our readers’ noses but expect to surprise them? How does that work?

Let’s say we scatter three (or more) clues along the way then choose the least expected. To be fair, we can’t do this without setting all three of these clues up as “suspects”.

These extra clues must fit the story and connect as well. No cheating! No throwing stuff in just for the hell of it.

Muse Help

This is where our wonderful Muses can help us out.

This is where we have the most fun as writers.

This is also why it’s paramount for authors to read, read, read, read, read so we can eliminate what every other author has used as a clue. We’ll end up with something original, a real surprise for our treasured reader.


Next post — Story Structure

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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