Mending my ways and letting you know a little sooner – I’ll be in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 16th because the library system has chosen Dave at Night for its Kids Read Across Rhode Island. I am so honored! Here’s a link:

Last December M.K.B. wrote, I was curious about surprises in stories. Do you have to give hints of what surprise (I’m talking about in non-mystery stories)? Like in that movie “Tangled” (well, they actually told you she was a princess in the beginning but I couldn’t really think of anything else) they let her see a picture of the baby princess and she recognized her eyes as her own. Do you have to do something like that or can I just hit my readers with the frying pan of surprise?

I love that, “the frying pan of surprise” as an expression! And I love surprises in stories.

There are two kinds of frying-pan surprises. The good kind smacks you, astonishes you, and knocks all the preceding plot elements into place.

The bad kind slams you and leaves you gasping, “Whuh?”

The most effective use of the good frying pan comes throughout the original (I haven’t read the later books) Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. The series was written for adults, but I’d say the three books I read are appropriate for middle school kids and above. The surprises keep whamming you between the eyes and yet they make perfect sense.

The bad frying pan, in my opinion, is epitomized by the TV series Lost (high school at least). Time travel, smoke monsters, polar bears in the tropics, good guys who turn bad, bad guys who turn good, why did I watch this? Nothing adds up. There’s an LOL video summary of all seasons but the last on YouTube:, also with adult content. The last season, alas, resolves nothing.

This has come up before on the blog: the temptation, which I feel, too, near the end of a story, to drop a bomb on all the characters or to have an asteroid hit the earth and wipe it out. This is the bad frying pan at its worst.

So how do we achieve the good fp and eschew the bad?

We drop in hints and bury them.

Things happen in real life that are unbelievable, that you can’t put into fiction because suspension of disbelief will fall apart. Here are two minor examples. If you have better ones, please post them.

In the first, my husband, David, was walking in the winter in New York City, icicles hanging from skyscrapers above. He saw a clock in a store window and drew back to look at the time just as an icicle crashed down from thirty stories above. If he hadn’t pulled back, that icicle would have clocked him, so to speak. In fiction, this would seem contrived, the surprise of the icicle canceled by the contrivance.

In the second, my parents and I many years ago visited a sick aunt at her apartment. I was grown up and married by then. David had shortly before had a job interview during which he filled out a psychological questionnaire aimed at revealing his management style. Thoughtfully thinking I’d be interested, he asked for extra copies. When I visited Aunt Harriet, I brought the copies with me to entertain everyone. The test was long, maybe five or six pages. My father took his to another room and spent forty-five minutes on it. My mother breezed through hers in ten minutes, sitting right in the room with me and my aunt. The two of them, my father and my mother, answered every single question the same way, although my parents had such different personalities: my father sunny, my mother worried; my father stubborn, my mother persuadable; my father an appreciator of humor, my mother actively funny. Not credible in a story.

Let’s take the first real-life event and see if we can make it work in fiction with the buried-hints approach. David’s clock radio wakes him to a meteorologist’s warnings about an ongoing ice storm. At breakfast he and his wife (not me, this is fiction now) quarrel about the family finances. The wife’s work hours have been cut back, and David’s been unemployed for a year. Money fights keep cropping up. He’s pawned his watch, and she gave her heirloom china set to the consignment shop. After the argument, they stop speaking to each other. He opens the local paper and reads his horoscope, which predicts a lucky day. Encouraged, he shows the prediction to his wife. They make up. He sets off for his job interview, where he’s given the management style questionnaire, which I’m dragging in from my other anecdote. His style turns out to be emotional, but the company is seeking someone with an intuitive bent, so he doesn’t get the position. He leaves the office building in a black mood, even thinking of tossing himself in the icy river. But more sensible thoughts prevail. He pauses to check the time in a store window to see if he can catch the early train home, and the icicle descends exactly where he would have been if he hadn’t stopped, fulfilling the prophesy and enabling him to apply for another job another day.

The icicle still drops out of a clear blue sky. It’s still a surprise, but now it satisfies, now that we’re set up for it by the horoscope and the pawned watch, which are buried by the details of the argument and money woes. If you were really writing this as a story and not merely a summary, you would do the burying more effectively by including the actual dialogue during the argument, showing the receptionist at the job interview, the office itself, David (poor man) liking what he sees, getting his hopes up, feeling that he’s connecting with the HR person who’s describing what his future duties might be. With all this, the watch recedes to nothing but a trivial detail, and the horoscope hovers pleasantly as a question mark that we hope will take us to a happy ending.

With preparation surprises satisfy. Without, they fall flat. In Fairest (SPOILER ALERT), for example, the creature in the mirror comes as a surprise, but the reader is prepared for something about that mirror for a long while. If the mirror hadn’t been performing tricks, Aza’s arrival inside it would be just weird.

It’s total fun to drop in the hints and set up the surprises, so here are some prompts:

∙    Take one of your own improbable, real-life experiences and fictionalize it so that the surprise works. If you don’t have one, ask friends and family for anecdotes.

∙    Three students at a school for odd children love table tennis and are the most enthusiastic members of the school ping-pong club. Sonja’s special skill is the power to force her voice and words out of the mouths of hamsters. Tom can make his hair stand on end at will. Raymond turns to stone when he’s bored and liquifies when he’s excited. These traits have so far been useless in their game. Raymond even dissolves into an orange puddle at tense moments. Drop in and bury hints that lead to a surprise victory when the team plays against the reigning non-odd champions.

∙    This is your chance to use that asteroid. The Monot tribe and the Hurlens have been at war in the mountains of Ael for decades. Make it satisfying when the asteroid hits and destroys them all (or all but two, if you’re tenderhearted).

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I love this post as I think deftly hiding clues that will make a surprise seem logical are crucial to making the surprise (or the ending) satisfying. I recently watched Avalon High (Disney) with my girls and I was enjoying it so much until it reached the surprise ending that none of the clues led up to. The thing is, I think they *could* have put in clues, but they got distracted and only included clues that led to the main character's (erroneous) conclusion.

    This post is timely, as I am just about to start to revising the second book in the series I am working on as it has a mystery in it. Which leads to…

    A couple of weeks ago Ms. Levine put up a reminder to share any publishing successes on her blog, so I am thinking this means that it won't be spamming 🙂 if I mention that I now have a Kindle book on Amazon, Miri Attwater and the Ocean's Secret. It's a light-hearted girl adventure for ages 8 and up and I think this link will work:

    I'm also working on getting my on-line presence of my pen name up and running. (Some of you may have noticed: same picture, different name.)

  2. Haha! I love that! "The frying pan of surprise." That was literally my favorite part of the movie– the frying pan. 🙂
    Congrats on getting your book published, Erin… er, E.S. Ivy! Cool name, btw.
    Gail, have you ever done a post on the motives of writing something? I was reading an article in The Writer's Digest Handbook to Novel Writing (superb articles in there, btw) about what your motives are in writing a novel. It struck me that the only 2 stories I've finished I've had specific motives behind– ie, my short story last year had to written for writing club (which is a weak motive) and a parody I wrote for the Hunger Games was for my best friend's birthday– I wrote 7,700 words in 2 days. Whew! (Slightly better motive.) I wasn't thinking about publishing, or writing a certain number or pages/words/etc. And when I did NaNo last year my motive wasn't finish my novel, it was write 30,000 words. (That's probably the reason why I didn't finish my NaNo novel). When I set out writing a story and I think, I want to get this published, it is guaranteed that I don't finish it.
    Anyone's thoughts on this?

  3. @ E.S. Ivy- I'm DEFINITLY gonna have my sister try your book out!!! She's almost 10 and will LOVE it- it's right up her ally!!!

    @ Mrs. Levine- Thanks a lot for the stuff on the earlier post!!! I've never had a creative writting class (or any writting class for that matter!) and I learn all of my stuff from your books and blog! I'll defintly have to thank you when I accept my Newbery Award 😉 Also, after reading your blog, I can really pick out your writting "voice" in your books!

    @ Lark- I've been having a simular issue when I write anything other than a short story! They all just seem to die after I write a few paragraphs. I am starting to try to "breath" new life into some of them though! That's what I suggest- just try a new twist on your original story!

  4. I've got a problem with cliches. My WIP is starting to lean towards that dystopian rebels-against-evil-society thing. I want something new, instead of the plot that half the books released this year have. Does anyone have any ideas?

  5. Good job with the book, E.S. Ivy! I'd get it, but have no money right now (nor a Kindle).

    I have some novels on Amazon and Createspace under the name Kate Kracklin and another is coming in June under the name Marie Spatzen. (That one's for my niece. Each of my nieces and nephews are getting a book series.)

    Motivation is hard for me, too.

  6. E.S. Ivy Congratulations on your book being published! It looks really interesting! I'm going to show it to my cousin, she loves things like that! 😀

    Capng, you could always reverse the situation. You could have your main character on the evil society side and make it seem more sympathetic. Or you could make your MC fight against society, then loose. Or make her plain evil, that's always fun to read about!
    I have a problem with cliches too, they're hard to avoid and often are hard to make original. When that happens I like reversing the roles of the hero and villain, or change the ending so no one would expect it.

  7. Thanks everybody! I have been following book publishing for several years and I am excited about the new flexibility that is evolving.

    I'm actually not planning to do any marketing until I get more books in the series up, but I couldn't resist mentioning it here. 🙂 (Kate – and everybody else – I'll be doing some promotions when I get that far. I definitely understand because I am a big library person myself. Although you can't tell it by the number of books in our house.)

    Inkling and unsocialized homeschooler thanks so much for pointing readers my way! Reaching the younger age group on ebooks is something I am currently trying to figure out. I even have kids that age, they and their friends have e-readers or ipods, and I still can't figure out how to introduce them to a new writer. They go for writers they know. (Both my girls have stalked the GC Levine section at the library and on my bookshelf. Read them all!)

  8. @ unsocialized homeschooler: I have some ideas for that. First, you have to choose the grade:
    *1-5grade(the last option is my grade)It's a bit of hard with friendships and bullies and stuff like that.
    Middle grade: don't ask me.
    @Gail Carson Levine: I already did the Kyle and June story! I am still writing it!

  9. From the website:

    Hi Mrs. Levine,
    I can't comment on your blog, but I do have a question that would belong there…
    I'm homeschooled, and recently in one of my school books I studied novels/novelists. The book talked about 'range': an author's limits and experiences, and his or her ability to work with them. They used Jane Austen as an example, saying that even though the Napoleonic Wars took place in her time, she chose not to write about them because wars were outside her range. Now, after pouring my heart into a fantasy series for over three years – a series that does include numerous battles – I'm wondering if I tried writing way outside my range. I know nothing about fighting other than what movies and the many books I read tell me. Do you think I was wrong to write outside my range? Can books like that still be successful? (Thanks for taking the time to read my long question!)

  10. I've realized that this is why rewrites are gold. You do the first draft to get all of your good ideas out, where you can do as many twists and turns as you want and play with different ideas. Then, when you find the story twists that work for you, you go back and rewrite it, setting it up beforehand so it becomes a good frying-pan and not a bad one.

  11. @Gail Carson Levine: I am the JC that wrote on your guestbook! I am creating a blog to have a fanbase after I get my story published OR if it doesn't work I will use it to write about my travels! You should visit when I've decided! (Anyway, the Kyle and June project setting is in 1931 A.D! That too took a lot of reconsideration basing on a light novel!)Thank you, Mrs. Levine, for replying!

  12. I think what Michelle said about range is interesting, because technically fantasy elements like dragons are outside of EVERYBODY's range, yet I seldom write battle scenes for the same reason.

  13. Michelle – You know what? I did the exact same thing. Actually, not only are there tons of fight scenes in my book (a sequel to a previous one that was also “out of my range”), but it’s also based on modern American adults – something I know nothing about since I’m sixteen. Still, I write them, not because I’m qualified, but because I love them! The characters and the plots that they fit into are so much fun to write that I just do my best with the stuff that’s “out of my range” and keep going. Maybe it won’t be a very good book to read because it’s so inaccurate, but it’s so much fun to write that I don’t care! I guess that’s why I called myself Writeforfun.

  14. From the website:

    For the blog again:
    @ Writeforfun: Good to know I'm not the only one! Your comment was a good reminder to me to just have fun with writing, to write simply for the pleasure of it. I'm getting published soon, so it's easy to lose the 'fun aspect' sometimes. (Sorry for not responding to you sooner, btw.) Oh, and I like your name. 🙂

  15. Michelle – wow! That's so cool that you're going to get published! I'm with Miss Ivy – let us know when it comes out! (And thanks, by the way, for the compliment:) Have fun writing!

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