3 Ways Character Surprises Enhance Your Screenplay

By Creative Screenwriting Magazine • May 11, 2022

One of the greatest gifts screenwriters can give to their audiences (and themselves for that matter) is the power of surprise. A surprise is an unexpected, but organic character revelation or plot turn. Generally speaking, writers are advised to maintain a degree of consistency in their stories for the audiences to remain engaged. Surprises shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. They should be more improbable than impossible. A small left of field plot is acceptable, but a dramatic move risks making your reader scratch their head, and not in a good way.

Surprises should be organic, but not completely obvious. This approach is more likely to excite audiences than confuse them. Little is more unnerving to a reader than getting lost in a screenplay.

Surprises can be broken into two main camps: character and plot. Plot surprises are a tricky beast because inexperienced (and sometimes experienced) screenwriters add them because they look good rather than elevating the story. Character surprises tend to be more satisfying because they peel back various layers. Character should drive plot rather than plot driving character. So should the surprises.

Let’s take a look at three types of surprises:

1) Secrets Revealed

Actors are increasingly attracted to roles where they can be more than one character – saint and sinner, good and bad, hero and villain – not saint OR sinner, good OR bad, hero OR villain. This binary division speaks to the dark side of characters in terms of what they are capable of.

Such contradictions don’t give screenwriters the absolute right to create characters full of antithetical traits, so the reader can never fully connect to them.

The most effective way to address this issue is to give a character a core set of traits and later reveal the hidden ones as the story unspools. Imagine a CEO, who’s a devoted family man, treats his staff fairly, pays them well, donates to worthy causes, volunteers at the local animal shelter, and is largely considered a pillar of his community.

As the story progresses, secrets are uncovered and reputations are at stake. To explore this scenario, someone discovers an old newspaper article in the library archives, an incriminating photo, or they get in touch with a retired journalist who throws shade on the CEO’s so-called impeccable character. The CEO suddenly has a past which raises immediate questions of whether the accusations are true and the full extent of what they did.

Consider how such a story might play out. Depending on the veracity of these revelations, the CEO will act accordingly, and hopefully, even surprise us. Once the audience has a firm grasp of the context of the story, they will understand that the CEO will be in self-preservation mode based on how their character was established. They might seek to discredit the threat, deny the claims, or impede their access to vital evidence. Hardly big surprises here.

A skilled writer will push the character envelope in terms of the severity of the secret and the severity of the response. What if the CEO had an affair that was discovered by a local kid? Gaslighting or a bribe to silence them might be the first port of call. But what if the CEO kidnapped the kid or even killed them? Now you have your audience gasping for air as they grapple with the extent of the character’s darkness. What else are they capable of? Where there any clues that we should have noticed?

Alternatively, screenwriters can use this technique to illustrate a spot of light in a character’s darkness. Imagine a hardened murderer who is on death row helping the warden who tormented them from a life-threatening situation. Why might they behave like that? They may have reflected on their crime, saw the humanity of the warden, or make the point that they are human too. Even if they take their reasoning to the grave, the audience has something to discuss about the character.

2) Panic Button

This category is based on the action-reaction paradigm. These type of surprises are frequently the plan-gone-wrong (such as a failed bank heist) or the wrong-place-wrong-time.

Imagine a group of college student driving h0me from a party, slightly drunk and high, and they accidentally hit someone. Nobody knows what to do. This scenario allows for many aspects of each character to play out. One panics, one calls 911, one applies their first aid knowledge to help the victim. A ticking clock and making life-changing decisions under pressure reveals plenty about each character.

They are on a country road without cameras or highway patrol. No witnesses. They can thoroughly wash their car and continue driving.

What if the logical, even-tempered student who does everything by the book decides they should keep driving and encourage the others into a pact that they never mention the incident again? The victim will likely die without medical attention and be devoured by wild animals. NO evidence. No crime. Even more extreme, what if the that student buries the victim?

3) Lost Their Way

Imagine the idealist activists who are determined to make their mark on the world and right all wrongs. The establishment ensures they are thwarted because change is too disruptive and the world is not ready for their plan. But the idealists persist because they demand a better world which will benefit everybody. They make little if any progress. Let’s use climate activists as an example.

Tired and despondent over their lack of progress in effecting policy change, they resort to immoral and possibly illegal means to get their message heard because the future of humanity depends on it. Still no change. Then they become disheartened, start accepting bribes and temper their stance. What if they participate in unsavory fundraising activities such as accepting donations from the perpetrators?

This is an understandable pivot in their behavioral change. What if their response was even more extreme and they sabotaged fossil fuel infrastructure or kidnapped or even murdered some industry bigwigs until the demands were met?

These are tragic character arcs especially if the activists are unaware that are becoming everything they want to address. Such changes are typically gradual as they make a Faustian bargain that the means justify the end. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a prime example of animals adopting the ideology they wanted to eliminate.

Surprise us!

Creative Screenwriting Magazine