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Story Design Tips: Depth through Surprise

Use surprise to help you create depth of character.

Some things you learn by watching experts, some things you learn by watching the inexperienced. Today I want to talk about a story design tip I learned from my writing students.

Occasionally, I teach in writing workshops. In my last workshop I noticed a pattern that had repeated, like a mathematical constant, in the last three workshops.

When inexperienced writers begin to experiment, their dialogue and characters are usually pretty straightforward. All the basic mistakes repeat themselves. As I guide them out of it, it’s easy to notice a very simple pattern: in a dialogue or scene that in a previous draft was one-dimensional, whenever a character does something that is surprising (and believable), it adds depth to that character.

Before we delve into why that is true, let’s check the opposite: A character with no surprises is almost always one-dimensional. He has one direction, one intent, one color to his personality.

On the other hand, a character that stops one sentence in the middle and begins another (thus surprising us) has more than one thought in his head and has conflicting ideas/needs/desires. It’s the same thing for a character that stops one action in the middle and starts another. Your character may return to the original thought or action, but he will have gained more depth in the eyes of the player in the meanwhile.

A character that does one action in an unexpected way also feels deeper than a character that doesn’t. That ‘unexpected way’ reveals something about the character’s nature: originality, cruelty, kindness, genius, greediness, a past of one kind or another, etc.

A character that responds to a situation in a way the players would not expect is automatically not cliché. Not only that, you will have to find reasons and justifications for behavior that is slightly out of the zone of what we know. This adds depth to your character. The same thing is true if the character responds to another character in an unexpected way.

Now, if you’ve already built your character’s depth, inserting surprise into the character’s scenes is an easy way to get that depth across. Decide that in any one scene, your character will show at least two sides of himself.

Begin the scene showing one side, and then decide what is the most surprising time to drop in the other side of the character. As long as you remain ‘realistic’ and/or true to the logic of your story, this should work.

There are many, many reasons why different patterns of this one rule (unexpected behavior begets depth of character) work. But sometimes all you need to know is the rule: be unexpected. Be unexpected in mid-sentence, in mid-action, in reacting, or in the way the character is acting or reacting.  

And, voila: Depth!



[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]

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