The Subtle Art of Surprise

I’ve been very bad at actually writing anything bloggy, but I’m going to start again. Honest!

This one’s sort of writing advice but it’s more about storytelling than writing, I guess. I hope those of you who have read The Lost War or Carpet Diem might consider that I know how to pull off a surprise now and then. And I watched something this week that, I think, did it really badly and wasted an opportunity to have a great reveal. So, brace yourself for spoilers for Picard Season 3, episode 4 ‘No Win Scenario’.

If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want it spoiled, look away now.

Right, if you’re still here, I’m assuming you’ve either seen it or don’t care about being spoiled.

So, the potential surprise that could have been interesting was Ensign La Forge being a shapeshifter when she showed up to ‘help’ Shaw and Seven. Established facts: we knew there was a shapeshifter saboteur onboard. We knew that La Forge called Seven ‘Seven’ and not ‘Annika Hansen’, as Shaw insisted. Those were basically the only pieces of information we needed to make the surprise work. BUT… we were given too much more. Way too much. Shaw and Seven have a whole conversation where Shaw basically says: “This would be the ideal time for the changeling saboteur to sabotage us.” And then Seven makes a call to Riker which we don’t get to hear, other than him signing off with “Understood.”

Now, right away, we know that conversation was important. We know they didn’t let us hear it for a reason. And the reason is that a reveal is coming later. It’s a massive signpost that wasn’t necessary.

So when La Forge shows up, having been “sent to help”, anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention knows she’s the changeling. She has a brief, tense exchange with Shaw, who’s clearly suspicious, before Seven reappears and challenges her: “I specifically told Riker not to send anyone to help us.” There’s the reveal of the conversation they had. But it’s limp. Like, OK, we already knew she was the changeling, all you’ve done is tell us what you said to Riker.

But then it gets even less subtle. La Forge begs Seven to believe her, calling her ‘Commander’. And Seven replies ‘Commander who?”

What?

Why would she *ever* ask that? It’s so totally unnatural that I almost threw something at the TV.

Of course, the changeling replies “Commander Hansen”, Seven shoots her and she turns into goo. Shaw then asks “How did you know?” and Seven replies “La Forge calls me Commander Seven, out of respect.” Which is a nice dig at Shaw, but it’s just… wasted.

One of the most important ways to pull off a good reveal is subtlety. I suspect maybe the initial draft of this script was more subtle and perhaps the director or even the network insisted they needed to lead the viewers by the hand through this reveal. Who knows? But imagine how much better it could have been.

Imagine if all we knew was about the shapeshifter and the ‘Commander Seven’ thing – established in a way that was a little more natural. And then imagine we’d had Seven becoming a little paranoid about how *anyone* could be the shapeshifter. And then imagine just before this scene, Riker had spoken about being worried about Shaw finishing in time, and then we cut to La Forge at her console.

In this version, La Forge then arrives to help and we haven’t had it flagged up that this is a potential sabotage moment. In fact, what we have is a potential “Baby La Forge is as good an engineer as her dad” moment. And let’s say the initial conversation between her and Shaw is maybe a little awkward – just enough to make us go “hang on”. Then Seven comes back and immediately pulls her phaser. Both Shaw and La Forge are like “whoa!”. We get a tense, urgent back and forth, with all three becoming more agitated and making us wonder if La Forge is the shapeshifter or Seven has gone full paranoid. Then La Forge calls her Commander Hansen, or maybe even Annika, and Seven immediately shoots her. La Forge drops to the ground and, for a moment, retains her form as Shaw freaks out, until she dissolves into goo. *Then* Shaw asks “How did you know?” and Seven reminds us “Laforge calls me Seven.” Pause as he looks Shaw in the eyes. “Out of respect.”

Still the dig at Shaw, but we also got a genuinely tense moment with a nice reveal.

This is something I’ve talked about before as the problem with Chekhov’s gun. The playwright’s theory goes that if you show a gun in the first act, you better fire it in the third. It’s terrible writing advice. Because it’s too predictable. I would turn that around instead and say: if you fire a gun in the third act, you need to have seen it at some point in the story. But you should also have seen plenty of other guns that were not fired along the way.

If you spoon feed an audience, you ruin the surprises that will delight them. So be subtle. Give the audience/readers the information they need, but in a context where it is entirely natural and doesn’t flag up “That’s going to be important later.” Throw in some red herrings, too. You need a rich, colourful world to hide clues in.

Here’s another example, from The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen that either, I’m barely going to spoil anything, because honestly, they spoiled it themselves, and that’s kind of the point.

Imagine this rewrite of the story. Imagine that up until the very moment that Han was face to face with Kylo Ren, we had no idea he was Ben Solo. Imagine what an incredible reveal that could have been – a perfect companion piece to “I am your father.” Han calls him “son” and the whole audience gasps.

Instead, we were told early on that Kylo Ren was Ben Solo and it was… meh. The surprise when (Actual spoiler!) Ben murders Han is pretty good. That whole scene could have been absolutely iconic, but it wasn’t, because we had too much information already.

Surprises and reveals can be the most exciting and entertaining bits of a story. But if you’re going to get them right, you have to do the work to set them up. The key word is *always* subtlety, and building your clues into a broad, interesting tapestry, so they aren’t hanging out there screaming at the audience: “Something’s gonna happen!”

As an aside, two films that I think do this really well are No Way Out and Unbreakable. If you haven’t seen them and want to study how to plot out a twist, I recommend both. Of course, knowing there’s a twist can be enough to spoil it, so you’ll have to get past that to see how well they’re done.

Slainte!

J

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