We’ve all been there. You open a book, read the first few lines, and immediately guess the plot from just a few words. As writers, how can we safeguard against astute readers? There is no guaranteed way to write a story that is impossible for readers to figure out, but there are a few tricks to use that can keep them guessing.
The first matter of business is to recognize that everyone is going to come into your story with their personal bias. Without even describing a character, a reader will have their mental picture of how that character looks.
The fun part is, you can use this knowledge to surprise them. Play with clichés, don’t use them. There’s a girl attending a boarding school? The readers might be surprised to find out that she has a very healthy relationship with her family, doesn’t struggle academically, and has no problem making friends. Simply put, play against stereotypes whenever possible. Angsty teenagers, troublesome little boys, and love-struck adults may seem realistic. Still, they leave out all of the angelic, sweet children, the passionate, focused teenagers, and the hard-working, goofy adults. Develop your characters thoroughly and surprise your readers by keeping them fresh and unique.
A great way to keep the readers guessing is to have the protagonist discover the truth along with the reader. It’s comparable to the difference between anonymous car insurance quotes and those obtained by offering all your personal information upfront. The absence of details leads to assumptions that differ from those resulting from all the facts being laid out from the start. If the characters don’t know what’s coming, it’s a lot harder for the readers to figure it out too. What’s more, it feeds into the need for the reader to see eye-to-eye with the protagonist. Even if the protagonist is flawed, readers yearn for a connection. What better way than to synchronize their perception of events as they unfold.
You have great characters, and you have a great plot, but how can you draw it out? The next step to surprising your readers is in the reveal. Don’t overdo the description in the beginning. The reader doesn’t have to know hair color, eye color, height, and quirks of any character to understand their essence. Pace out your revelations and descriptions. Maybe the readers don’t know it’s a boarding school until the third chapter, and that changes everything. Perhaps the readers think the characters are friends until they realize one of them is imaginary. The key is to explain enough so the reader doesn’t feel lost or lied to but leave enough fun surprises that will keep the reader guessing.
As mentioned, there is no perfect way to achieve this goal. The main thing you want to avoid is insulting the reader’s intelligence. Instead of making a simple revelation seem like a crazy plot twist, try playing with stereotypes, pacing out the description, and keeping the main character just as in the dark as the readers. Rather than adding a surprise every chapter, slowly build up to one massive revelation that will shock the readers. The trick is to take it slow and be thorough.