Today I’m bringing you a plotting technique I call “Death by Surprise,” and it works as a great pinch to your readers. It can give them a twinge of suspense, shock, dread, and sorrow all at once. It works like this:
Your character is battling his way through your story, facing villain, monsters, or whatever kind of obstacles you are throwing his way. Then something out of the blue actually inflicts a fatal wound to him. It’s something the character (and maybe the reader too) never saw coming. The intensity of this plotting technique comes from the shock and surprise the character has as he realizes, he’s come so far only to die from this.
Let’s look at examples to see some different ways “Death by Surprise” can be done, then at why it works, and how you can mess it up.
In the Lord of the Rings films, Frodo suffers all kinds of ailments and faces all kinds of enemies; he even makes it into Mordor and through Shelob’s lair. Just when he thinks he’s safe from the giant spider, it stings him.
It’s not completely out of the blue, but Frodo doesn’t expect it. We’ve watched him come so far, so it’s painful to see him get stung. It’s like—how can that happen? Now? When he’s so close?
In this example, the audience sees Shelob sneaking up on him, but Frodo doesn’t (that creates an added layer of suspense). It’s not a surprise for us, but it is for Frodo. That moment is like a pinch to me every time.
In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, protagonist Edward Elric battles villains with alchemy. We’ve watched him overcome all kinds of fights with bad guys, and we’ve watched him overcome his own personal obstacles—the death of his mom, the abandonment from his father, the loss of two of his limbs, his complicated feelings over the predicament of his brother. We know how iron-willed Edward is. Nothing stops him. He works to overcome whatever life throws at him, all without whining.
In one episode, Edward uses alchemy to make damp dynamite explode, finally defeating some henchmen. He (and the audience) thinks he’s overcome an obstacle once again only to realize a second later that a spike of wood from the blast has pierced straight through him, pinning him to the ground.
And he’s going to die.
It’s so unexpected. It’s like a freak accident. And it’s going to do our hero in. And the tragic irony of it is that it’s an accident he inflicted on himself. It’s like, how the heck did that just happen?!
In this example, because the audience doesn’t see it coming, we’re just as shocked as Ed.