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BREAKING & ENTERING: The Element of Surprise

Barri Evins reveals how to use the Art Of Surprise in your story to excite jaded readers, lure busy execs, and stand out to audiences bombarded with choices.

Barri Evins reveals how to use the Art Of Surprise in your story to excite jaded readers, lure busy execs, and stand out to audiences bombarded with choices.

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According to behavioral neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer, “Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.”


When experiencing a story, we love when our predictions for “What happens next?” are right, and we hate having our expectations go unmet.

But the element of surprise – the unexpected twist, is the biggest turn-on of all. It floods our brains with the delicious neurochemical dopamine, lighting up our reward and pleasure centers.

Surprise grabs the full attention of our brain. It shouts, “Pay attention!” We didn’t see this coming and we might need to know it in order to survive in the future. Jonah Leher,How We Decide

Bringing the element of surprise to your stories is a powerful force you can harness to enhance and advance your work. Master the use of surprise and you will entice jaded readers, lure overloaded execs and reps, and stand out to audiences bombarded with choices.

Surprise! The Familiar Is A Fail

In an earlier ScriptMag column, I’ve talked about how cliché kills scripts. Cliché diminishes tension, smothers suspense and spoils surprise. Cliché destroys some of the most powerful tools you have as a storyteller.

The reason this happens takes us back to geeky neuroscience.

Dopamine can’t be activated with the overly familiar.

Our ever-efficient brains have learned to ignore words and phrases that may have once made storytelling awesome, but have been overused:

Utilize Surprise! Don't Make Us Yawn

Tired as a dog.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Upset the applecart.


The predictable, the hackneyed, the commonplace literally turn off our brains.

“Nothing new here,” says our always eager to learn mind. “Let’s just gloss over it and move on to something that might be important.” As a storyteller, your goal should be grab our attention and keep us riveted.

5 Types of Movie Ideas You Shouldn’t Bother to Write

Clichés fail to activate our brains. Switching them up with something inventive yet understandable engages us. It delivers more emotional impact and increases resonance:

Too tired to lower my eyelids.

Stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe.

Shaken like a snow globe.

I’m willing to bet that even reading the fresh phrases above made this article seem a little more interesting to you. Because that is how the brain works. The earliest humans relied on paying attention to that which is different in order to survive.

Surprise! Reimagine the Wheel

To keep that dopamine flowing, the major elements of your story must also be fresh and unique.

That sounds like I’m suggesting that you reinvent the wheel. No small challenge.

How do you keep your story inventive and engaging at every turn?

Surprise Engages Audiences

Surprise Starts With Ideas

Some may argue there are only so many stories in the world, and that there simply are no new stories. But there is no reason that your take on a classic can’t be dynamic and exciting. Hang on to what we love, and make the rest distinctive – through your sensibility – your unique perspective on the world. It’s what you bring to the table that makes your story stand out.

Pretty Woman, the hugely successful rom-com released in 1990, listed by Box Office Mojo as the #1 romantic comedy ever by estimated domestic ticket sales, is a readily recognized as a retelling of the Cinderella story.

A rich and ruthless corporate raider hires a beautiful, down on her luck prostitute to be his escort for a week, only they fall in love.

The Cinderella story is truly iconic. Variations exist in all major cultures, throughout Europe and Asia, telling a version of unjust oppression followed by triumph and reward. Every version features “a young woman living in unfortunate circumstances, that are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune.” With or without a glass slipper.

Partners In Crime – Engaging Audiences

The earliest telling is considered to be the story of a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt, written around 7 BC. A mere 2000 or so years ago.

Despite clinging to the conventions of a centuries-old formula, Pretty Woman has a 62% Fresh Score on rating website, Rotten Tomatoes®, an internet arbiter of what’s hot and what’s not, based on movie and TV reviews from critics. Even the website, seemingly a cutting edge, app-tastic innovation, takes its roots and its name from live theatre of hundreds of years ago… W-a-a-a-y back in the time of Shakespeare:

Back in the days of the open theaters, when a play was particularly atrocious, the audience expressed their dissatisfaction by not only booing and hissing at the stage, but also throwing whatever was at hand – vegetables and fruits included.

Thus the trendy “Tomatoemeter” itself is inspired by audiences from Elizabethan times – the 1600s – where the cheap seats went to those closest to the stage, The Pit. From there, audiences were allowed to throw garbage at the actors!

The “fresh” need not be solely in the idea, but in the execution. The choices you make in telling the story that tap into what we love about the classic, while offering a fresh spin.

Thematically, the Cinderella story is timeless, with an uplifting universal message. Audiences identify with the idea that our fortunes could possibly turn on a dime. And that after being repressed or thwarted, the “villains” who held us back will get their just desserts, while the heroine – and, vicariously, us – get what has been long desired.

Surprise! But Satisfying

Buena Vista Pictures

What makes Pretty Woman’s spin on the ancient Cinderella story stand out is the Prince. Richard Gere’s character is made dimensional. Rather than a near anonymous, generic Shining Knight on a White Horse (although the film pays a hilarious and over the top homage to that trope with a white limo and a fire escape to be climbed, not to mention an umbrella filling in for a sword) the character of Edward is uniquely flawed and has a significant internal and eternal arc, sparked by his relationship with Julia Robert’s Vivian.

Uncertain if your idea is likely to get lobbed by rotten vegetables or hailed as fresh?

Thumbs Up! Your idea includes surprise

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Charismatic Characters Surprise

Movies have treated us to plenty of familiar story characters that have become painfully hackneyed:

  • The hooker with the heart of gold.
  • The once talented, now down and out and hitting rock bottom character drowning in self pity.
  • Two people forced together who instantly dislike each other but are opposite sides of the same coin.

It’s easy to predict how their storylines will play out. We’ve seen them time and again because they work, they appeal to us, and their inevitable resolution is always satisfying.

Elevate Your Story - Push Your Hero Off a Cliff

The trick is bringing something distinctive to your protagonist. Create a challenge we haven’t seen time and again. Discover an unanticipated way of overcoming that obstacle. Add a surprising plot twist and, still better, an unexpected way your hero responds to that twist.

Think about the incredible appeal of Walter White, who in Breaking Badtransforms from a lowly high school teacher who needs money to care for his family because he is dying, into a rich, megalomaniacal meth dealer.

Surprise! Character Arc

Sony Pictures Television/AMC

Didn’t see that one coming from the pilot, didja’?

The Hooker With The Heart of Gold becomes Erin Brockovich. She starts out in short-short skirts with lots of cleavage and no experience whatsoever. But she needs to provide for her kids. She uses her drive and determination, as well as the compassion she develops for the victims of the corporate pollution, to propel to her to unimaginable success and to gain justice. A Cinderella who gets it all without a Prince coming to the rescue!

The Down and Out Person who works their way back to redemption can range from Paul Newman’s alcoholic, ambulance-chasing lawyer in The Verdict, to Clint Eastwood’s gunslinger turned failed farmer in Unforgiven, to Mickey Rourke’s washed up wrestler unable to face the end of his career in The Wrestler. All wonderful films in different genres, set in different time periods and released in different decades – and all heroes who face distinctive challenges and found redemption in a way that is unique to their character.

The Buddy Story works in every genre from comedy to action dramedy to thriller. Think: Planes, Trains & Automobiles toMidnight Run to Se7en.

Examine your protagonist and search for their distinctive flaw and their unique ability. Then plan the surprise conflict along the way. Discover the distinctive way your hero tackles and conquers that obstacle, which provokes an unanticipated outcome, forcing them to change. That arc spells out the meaningful theme. And one that expresses a message you believe wholeheartedly.

These are the characters and arcs that draw us in – those tired, huddled masses reading countless scripts – and make us eager to follow heroes on their journey. They provide the intrigue of the unexpected – the attention-grabbing rush of a surprise – while also giving us the satisfaction of fulfilling our expectations and desires in the satisfying ending.

Surprise! Out Of The Blue But Not Outlandish 

Audiences love the sensation of building tension and suspense, but you have to pay it off with a surprise that makes sense.

A twist or reveal that comes out of the proverbial “left field” will leave your audience feeling manipulated and resentful. Not what you’re aiming for.

Surprise Fail! Out of the Blue

Think about some of your favorite movie surprises of all time. Once of the most popular and oft cited films in the category of “The Big Twist Movie” is in The Sixth Sense.

I loved the moment in Act 3 when Bruce Willis sees his wedding ring drop from his sleeping wife’s hand and roll slowly across the room. In that instant, he finally realizes that he is dead and has been for most of the movie. For me, the turn-on was my mind running back over significant moments throughout the film, where writer-director M. Night Shyamalan didn’t dupe us but had seeded in the clues every step of the way.

  • In Act One, Bruce is shot in the abdomen and bleeding all over the place.
  • Bruce sitting silently, while Toni Collette's character is accused by the doctor.
  • And OMG! “I see dead people!” How many times did Haley Joel Osment’s character say this!?!
Surprise! The Brain Rush

There was an actual sensation of dominoes falling in my mind.

And it was delicious…

My dopamine-infused brain loved it!

While not every story is meant to lead up to the explosive surprise of “everything you thought was real was not,” there is a lot to be learned by the powerful impact of the big reveal.

Think about the surprises you’ve loved in movies, and what made them captivating to you.

Now think about your own story and your hero, and consider whether they might be elevated by fresh elements and a well-integrated surprise.

You might just be surprised at the results!

Share your favorite movie big reveals or a story surprise from your own work in the comments.

Next month I’ll endeavor to surprise you again. Tips to make your execution surprising, even in the most formulaic genres plagued by the tropes of expectations. Plus ways to utilize tension and suspense to boost surprise.

Hopefully, I’m leaving you on the edge of your seat!

More articles by Barri Evins

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