Sep 2 2011

A surprising announcement!

And now, I’m going to tell you something very interesting and dramatic. It will be sudden and surprising. Ready? Okay, it’s coming up next: 

That opening paragraph is an announcement of what I, the writer, am about to tell you. Of course, it better be interesting and surprising or you, the reader, are going to be disappointed, or think that I’m being a bit overly dramatic.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just told you something, and you found it interesting and surprising?

It works that way in fiction too. Do you announce to your readers when a big scene or moment is coming?

Here are some actual examples from manuscripts I’ve edited (I’ve made some changes in the sentences so no one should recognize your work, if I borrowed from you).

And then, just when I least expected it, something exciting happened.

What happened next made her scream in terror.

Things got even worse after that.

So here’s what he decided to do.

The rest of the night went like this.

Later that day, something very strange happened.

For the rest of the trip, we had one stroke of bad luck after another.

Wrongly assuming it was my wife, I opened the door.

It was a calm day with bright sunshine and blue skies, not the kind of day they expected something horrible to happen later that afternoon.

Today things were good between us, but tomorrow, they would go terribly wrong.

I’ve heard these called announcement sentences or thesis statements. They can be useful—if you’re writing a thesis or an essay or a news story. They probably don’t belong in your fiction, at least not to announce to readers that something important is coming up.

An announcement tells readers in advance, ‘Hey, I know this section has been boring, but keep reading, something dramatic is about to happen.’

Why not just let something dramatic happen? Why ruin the surprise and the enjoyment for readers?

Especially in first-person stories, these announcements distort the narrative perspective. It puts the character into the future and looking back on events, telling the whole story in flashback mode. If the narrator knows something dramatic is about to happen, the narrator isn’t experiencing the story first-hand as it happens, and neither are readers.

There are also announcement words that can easily be eliminated most of the time:

Suddenly …

Now …

Began …

Started to …

Next …

These are only a few of the more common examples. Obviously there are times when you need those words. But when one of these words announces the next moment, see if you can drop the word or rewrite the sentence to avoid it. Don’t tell readers ‘Suddenly , this happens …’. Just let it happen, written in a way that shows it was ‘sudden.’

ORIGINAL: My husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying our peaceful Saturday breakfast when we couldn’t believe what happened next. Suddenly, a man neither of us knew opened the door and started to walk in. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now I noticed he wore no clothes. Next, I asked if he wanted cream or sugar in his coffee.

REVISE: My husband and I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying our Saturday breakfast, sipping coffee and munching on croissants and strawberries. I turned to refill our cups when the door flew open and a strange man walked in. Stark raving naked. “Cream or sugar?” I asked him.

In short, don’t tell readers you’re about to surprise them. It defeats the purpose.

18 Responses to “A surprising announcement!”

  • Nina Paules Says:

    Well done, Robb! You got my attention. :-) Nina

  • Brian Talgo Says:

    Excellent. I’ve been surgically removing announcement sentences and ‘suddenlys’ from my manuscripts for the last couple of months. They have little place in properly written fiction.
    - Brian

  • Helene Young Says:

    Love it, Robb! You are so succinct.

  • Robb Says:

    Thanks for stopping by everyone. Had an interesting conversation related to this on Facebook and how an announcement at the end of a chapter might add to the suspense and make a reader want to turn the page. But I think there can be a subtle difference between an announcement and a surprise twist that leaves the reader hanging by not giving away all the information. The example given was the difference between these two lines at the end of a chapter:

    Announcement: What happened the next morning scared me to death when I woke up.

    Better: The next morning when I awoke, a strange man stood beside my bed, staring at me. I screamed.

    The second one jumps into the scene and gives just enough to pique the reader’s interest, but leaves a lot of unanswered questions (who is this man, why is he there, what is he going to do, is our heroine in danger?). The first one just tells the reader “something big is going to happen if you turn the page.”

    At least that’s my opinion. Agree? Different ideas?

  • Pete Morin Says:

    Yeah, the end of chapter trick can be lazy. You have to get them to turn the page reflexively, not beg them.

    That’s no better than one of those FREE click-throughs that makes you sign up for six months of free spam.

  • Anne Lyken-Garner Says:

    You’ve got a point here, Robb. I see what you mean, but I still think that using those tactics (sparingly) can be useful. I know you don’t particularly like Stephen King, but I remember reading ‘It’ a few years ago. He was talking about a character and began by saying he was never seen again after what happened after… (the next sequence). Then he went on to tell you all about it.

    I think this was a clever ploy because it made me pay attention to what was said and HOW the guy died. I still remember this even though I read the book ages ago, so it must’ve had a great impact on me.

  • Anne Lyken-Garner Says:

    Also, I came over because you said you had a surprising announcement :-)

  • Robb Says:

    Hi Anne! I agree, there are times and places for everything, when intentionally placed for specific effect. And I love Stephen King. Or at least I used to read his work a lot, but eventually drifted away, but not because I didn’t like his writing. He’s a brilliant writer. When a story says that some specific action takes place in the next scene (or next chapter, or whatever, such as the example you gave), but it’s done in a way that’s not giving away the surprise but building interest, that’s different (at least to me). It’s more than just an announcement sentence, which are often at the beginning of a paragraph in which the announced event is contained within that same paragraph. Those are kind of redundant and dampen the surprise. But to say ‘so-and-so dies at the end of the day,’ then the next chapter (or the rest of the book even) goes into the drama of the whole day from start to finish, readers want to stick around to find out how he died, why he died, etc.

    And like always, there are no rules, just general guidelines, and exceptions when the writer’s talent and imagination create them.

  • Gail Jackson Says:

    Hi Robb. Great editing tip. A simple solution, when pointed out, that could really improve a ms.

  • Janet Says:

    As in every rule concerning writing, it’s all in the way you finesse the thing that makes it work or not. I agree with Anne and also see your point, Robb. The old saying “I’ll know it when I see it” seems appropriate. It will jump out at me if done wrong. If done right, I won’t notice and just want to know what happens next.

  • Dr Anne Says:

    Hi Robb! The examples you have given nearly all smack of author intrusion, which really slows down the writing. (Older styles of writing use this method as the writer sort of confides in the reader eg ‘dear reader’.) it is not acceptable in modern usage, and you should be showing not telling, using action to move the plot on.
    A couple of these sound almost Bullwer-Lyttonish!
    I am glad I don’t see this style often when I am reading or judging stories. They’d go straight onto the reject pile!
    BTW I never use the word ‘suddenly’. I like your second example with the naked man.

    • Robb Says:

      Dr Anne – authorial intrusion is exactly it. It reminds readers that they’re reading a work of fiction, which breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that can take hold when a reader is absorbed in the story.

  • Sabina E Says:

    very good advice, Robb. I’m guilty of this cheap trick in my writings, so i’ve been trying to avoid this trap.

  • Angel McCoy Says:

    Awesome advice, as always!

  • Lisa Lewis Moon Says:

    Short and sweet. Show don’t tell. Love it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Peggy West Says:

    This is an especially helpful post. The more I write, the more I find wrong with what I wrote. My red flags go up when the author shoehorns her own pace, style, drama, into the writing. I notice it in others’ writings and now know even better how to find it in mine. Thank you!

  • Gail Says:

    Sometimes I wonder if you write these posts specially for me.

  • Michelle L. Johnson Says:

    Great post, Robb! I come across a lot of this when editing. It really does pull the reader right out of the story.
    Well done.