Creative writing exercise: surprise

Some of my collection of creative writing textbooks. And yes, I have read them all!

There are so many considerations when writing fiction.  How to tell the story, what techniques to use?

Honing technique

I have an extensive collection of books on writing technique, and yes, I have read them all.  But to read advice is one thing, to do it is another, and so, I write short stories to hone my technique. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been sharing some of those techniques with friends in PYA – Promoting Yorkshire Authors.

Promoting Yorkshire Authors

PYA is a friendly group of Yorkshire authors, who have come together to help each other grow their careers.  There are many different strands to this, and one is writers’ support meetings, in which we focus on exercising our technique.

Speed writing

At each meeting, we focus closely on a single technique, and do ten minutes’ speed writing, using that technique.

Then we share around, each of reading aloud our work.  It’s accepted that writing something totally unprepared, in ten minutes, will not be our polished best.  But we discuss what worked, and learn from each other.

Exercising skills

Since the pandemic, we’ve switched from meeting in the pub, to meeting on Zoom.  Continuing the exercises, just as an athlete warms up before a marathon, is improving our skills, and building our confidence to try new things.


It takes courage to join a group and read your rough work aloud.  So, for those who daren’t yet join the group, here’s one of our exercises, to practice at home. 

To encourage you to be brave, and have a go, I’ve been brave and posted my rough, ten minute exercise at the end of this post.

Engineering Suprise

Surprise keeps readers reading: wow, I didn’t expect that – what might happen next?! 

But it’s not simply a matter of churning out the same old genre ‘surprises’: a dead body  – hey, that’s expected in detective stories.  A teen rebels against parents?  A family story, a teen story – it’s not only expected, it’s de rigueur.  Readers know these things are coming.

Surprise comes when something unexpected happens.  It’s a game with readers: lead them to expect one thing, then hit them with the opposite.

But, you can’t hit them with something illogical, out of nowhere – that will destroy their belief in your story.  You must lay your clues carefully.  Guide expectations one way, subtly leave clues that, when the surprise comes, will fall into place.  It’s all the fashion: the ‘twist’ in the tale.  To engineer it, work backwards.  Think of your outcome, lay your clues for both the ‘true’ outcome, and for a ‘false’ expectation.

The exercise:  Engineer your surprise

Write for 10 minutes.  Convince the reader that the outcome will be the opposite of what you’ve written – then twist and see all the other clues fall into place.

If you have a character or story in mind, then use that.  If you’re stuck for inspiration, write for ten minutes about ‘THE VISITOR’.

And, just to show you it’s possible, here’s my ten-minute rough exercise. I am taking my courage in both hands, and sharing it with you. Are you brave enough to do the same?

THE VISITOR: a story exercise by Helen Johnson

His feet slithered on synthetic carpet tiles.  He must remember not to touch metal.

He passed the banner with the new company logo, full of bright marketing-speak.

Richard’s PA hastened along the corridor, high heels digging into the carpet tiles, leaving a trail of tiny dents behind her.  Their paths crossed by the notice calling for volunteers.  She averted her eyes, an almost imperceptible nod acknowledging his presence.

Everyone knew there weren’t enough volunteers.

Why were offices always so stuffy?  His hands were clammy.  He nipped into the gents’.  Rinsed his hands and face with cool water.  The paper towel disintegrated as he tried to dry his face.  He looked in the mirror.  Adjusted his tie.  Smoothed his hair.

Back in the corridor, feet slipping again.  Why did smart shoes have no tread?

Into the telesales room.  Ranks of people, headsets, chest-high partitions.  A low buzz of voices.  Eyes dropping as he passed – then rising again to bore into his back.

Through the glazed wall of the conference room, he saw eyes locked onto the recruitment agent as she spoke.  She was sleek and calm, her red dress perfectly tailored. 

At the end of the corridor, the only unglazed door in the building.  The only one it was impossible to see through.  The name plate: Richard Smith, Sales Director.

He rapped with his knuckles. 

A muffled bark, “Come.”

Ouch!  A jolting shock.  He’d forgotten not to touch the metal door handle.

“You wanted to see me?”  His voice was a croak.

“Come in, come in,” Richard waved at the upright chair in front of the desk.  “Sit down.”

He perched on the edge of the chair, waiting.

Richard pushed a paper across the desk towards him.  “The restructure’s going well,” he said, “The Bottom Line is up.”

Sweat broke on his palms again as he bit his lip and nodded.

“So,” said Richard, “We’re paying you a bonus.”


Now your turn – have a go, see what you can do in ten minutes

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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