© 2010 Aaron Atkinson

Meaningful Surprise

In a fiction writing class at Graceland I learned an important lesson about story telling. My instructor, the late Jon Wallace, continually reinforced to us that the singular element that makes a good story is this thing called ‘meaningful surprise.’ On the surface, the concept is pretty simple. It’s as easy as subtly layering details throughout the story that come back into play in an unexpected way in your conclusion. It proved to be a simple idea that was quite challenging to implement.

This concept is exemplified a lot in movies when a seemingly insignificant detail, quirk or relationship reveals itself as a major piece of the puzzle when it comes back around in the end.

While his writing and movies have taken an undeniable turn for the worse of late, in his early work, M. Knight Shyamalan was a master at meaningful surprise. Movies like Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense and Signs all build up to a twist in the end when the small details and characterizations climactically boomerang back together, tying the whole story together.

Short story writing, or even blogs for that matter, are all made better and more interesting when the author pulls it all together in the end. As I write these short posts, I often try to write with a small element of meaningful surprise woven in. But wouldn’t you know it, as I was writing this post I couldn’t come up with a single piece of meaningful surprise.

Challenging to implement indeed!


  1. Pa
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm | #

    Can’t get me that easily. The photo. Dad. Ha!

    Or, is it as your thoughtful sister concludes, that the meaningful surprise is that herein lies no meaningful surprise. If given that, I’m taken to one of the many classic “Kirk”ian moments, “Everything I say is a lie.”

    Not the photo. Dad. Ha!

  2. Aaron Atkinson
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 3:11 pm | #

    Good one Dad. Head’s I win. Tails you lose.

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