25 August 2015

Learning to Love the Element of Surprise

When you read a novel, you'll often see an acknowledgments page on which the author thanks people who have helped in the creation of the book or in the author's career: friends, experts, librarians. Well, I'm here to say that we mystery writers have someone else to thank. Someone I've never seen thanked publicly before. So today, I give a hearty salute to ... cereal companies.
My current cereal has no prizes. Sob.

Since the mid-1900s, and particularly in the decade of my youth, the '70s, kids cereals often came with a prize buried deep in the box. I'd dutifully eat my cereal every morning, patiently waiting until the day I'd gotten far enough into the box that, joy oh joy, my new toy slid with my cereal into the bowl. What would it be? A fake tattoo? A small race car? A whistle? Whatever it was, I was eager to get it. And in the process of eagerly awaiting my prize each day, I was trained to be a mystery reader.

Think about it. Reading a mystery is just like anticipating the prize in the cereal box. Readers know a surprise is coming at the end, and they wait, happily turning pages, eager to uncover the bad guy or experience a big twist. Or both. Some readers try to figure out whodunit in advance, just as kids used to try to guess what the cereal prize would be. I was a big guesser, so it makes sense that I grew up to love mysteries, reading and writing them.

Googly eyes tattoo from a bandages box.
Of course there were all kinds of cereal eaters, just like there are all kinds of mystery readers. Some kids, like me, waited for the prize to tumble out of the box. We grew up to be readers who start on page one of a book and read until the end. But there were many kids who had no patience. They rammed their arms into each new cereal box, reaching around until they pulled the prize out. These kids grew up to read the last page of a book first.

Sometimes cereal boxes revealed right on them what the prize would be so you went into breakfast knowing what to expect, but not knowing when it would happen. When would the toy slide out of the box? Would it be as cool as you hoped? The kids who liked knowing the prize in advance and enjoyed the ride, waiting each day for the toy to fall into the bowl, became thriller readers.

Alas, the time of mystery prizes buried in cereal boxes seems to be over, which leaves me a little sad. But this development makes it all the more wonderful that the Frito-Lay company has taken up the mantle of training future mystery and thriller readers with their new, time-limited Doritos Roulette
Everything's better with Coke.
Chips. Most of the chips in these bags are normal nacho-cheese Doritos, but every sixth one is superspicy, and you never know which chip it will be until it's in your mouth.

Bob Harris's first bite.
I recently tested these Roulette chips on some friends. They started skeptically. How hot could the superspicy ones be? As you'll see in the photos, pretty darn hot. "One little taste and my tongue's on fire," author Sherry Harris said. "Ooh, I'm sweating," her husband, Bob, said. Ashley Harris added, "The regular chips have a slight kick, and then you hit the hot one and wow." But did they all stop after eating a superspicy chip? Nope. They liked the kick and went back for more. "I hurt myself, but it was good," Bob said.

Tasting a real hot one

Talk about teaching eaters--and readers--to love suspense and the element of surprise. Knowing the extraspicy chips are in the bag, but not knowing when you'll get that explosion in your mouth, is like reading a thriller, knowing there's a ticking time bomb under the table and waiting, heart pounding, until it goes off. And by putting more than one superspicy chip in each bag, the Doritos people are training readers to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of a good mystery, as the story waxes and wanes, and the main character faces greater and greater hurdles as she gets closer to the end of the story or book.

He's sweating!
That is excitement. That is the fun of reading a mystery. And that is the delight that cereal companies used to bring with the prizes hidden in their boxes, and that the Frito-Lay company is bringing now with their Doritos Roulette Chips. Alas, I understand these chips are only on sale through the end of this month, so if you want to experience them, run out and get a bag now, before they effectively go out of print. But before you do, please join me in thanking cereal companies and Frito-Lay, on behalf of crime writers everywhere, for priming kids and grown-up snackers to love mysteries so much that they come back, again and again, to read more. For mysteries are like any good chip--you can't just have one.

Do you recall a favorite prize you got from a cereal box? Or have you tried the Doritos Roulette Chips? I'd love to hear about it.


  1. Off I go to pick up a bag! And those pictures of Bob are priceless.

    Like you, Barb, I was also the wait-for-the-prize type. (I also save the cherry in the canned fruit cocktail to eat last.)

  2. "Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize, that's what you get in Cracker Jacks!"
    And they had all kinds of prizes: stickers, decoder rings, the whole nine yards. Great stuff, that I liked better than the actual Cracker Jacks.

  3. Bob was such a sport, Edith.

    And Eve, I forgot all about Cracker Jacks. It seems they're still for sale, they still come with prizes, and they're made by the Frito-Lay company! God Bless the Frito-Lay!

  4. What a great connection you draw there, Barb! I'm an addict of the 'surprise at the end' school of mystery writing, and in fact, am very disappointed when the author doesn't deliver it well. No amount of great writing can make up for that, in my opinion. Fun post!

  5. Just for the record, I ate three of those chips. My first one was super spicy -- lets say a dramatic opening. My next one was milder. Three weeks later I tried another one -- super spicy -- I was done. It's the longest a bag of chips ever lasted in this house!

  6. I like the distinction between mystery readers and thriller readers--there's a lot of truth to it, I think. I've never been much of a cereal eater, though--the idea of putting something bread-like into liquid just seems wrong to me. (I don't like matzo balls, either, and I always ask the server to leave the bread out of my onion soup.) I've always loved Cracker Jacks, though, and I suspect it's partly because of the prize.

  7. Barb, great article and good fun. Prizes in cereals was never a big deal, but, Like Eve, I loved the Cracker Jacks. In those days the prizes were real: code rings, whistles, cars. Today the best one can hope for is a paper decal or tattoo. Sad.

    Love your analogy.

  8. I'm glad you liked the post, Melodie. And writing endings can be so hard. Sometimes you need just the right dose of inspiration to get that last line, as well as to figure out a good twist.

    Sherry, I'm sorry I didn't get any photos of you eating the chips. That would have been fun! But at least Bob was so photogenic.

    Bonnie, that's so funny. I'm a picky eater, too, although I'm good with cereal and soups. Wouldn't it be great if food meant for adults had prizes, too. Like the fortunes that come with Chinese food. Everyone loves them!

    Herschel, I wish better prizes would make a comeback. Maybe the cereal and snacks companies will read these posts and decide to do just that. (Who knew I could be so optimistic?)

  9. Fun article, Barb! Favorite cereal prizes were a mini magnifying glass and little troll doll. I never read the ending ahead of time -- and, like Edith, I save that one precious fruit cocktail cherry for last!

  10. A magnifying glass is a perfect sleuthing tool to get from a cereal box, Vickie. How cool!

  11. When I was 7, I got a little plastic thingy... don't know what to call it! It was like a tiny statue of a horse that stood on a platform. The idea was to collect a set of these... um... mini cowboy toy statue toy thingies (that were supposed to stand up but did not by the way, Kellogg of Battle Creek). I taped it to a piece of notebook paper and wrote a love note to my boyfriend. Then I folded it up and left it in his desk at school. He moved back to Somerville over the weekend, and I never knew if he got it. Manuel Fonseca who went to 3rd grade at the Ditson School, if you read this, please let me know if you got the little plastic horse. xo

  12. I don't recall, but I think I am offended by the insinuation that I, (who used to dig into the cereal, or more likely, dumped it into a mixing bowl), would go to the end of a book to read the ending!
    No, no, no!
    (To my defense, I had to get to the prize before my brother!)
    And I only recently heard about Doritos Roulette...that is one type of chip that will no go into my shopping cart!

  13. Reine, that is so sweet.

    And Tonette, you make a good point. We need to distinguish between kids who preemptively grabbed the prize because they wanted it and kids who did it to keep someone else from getting it. Totally different types of readers. :)

  14. Super(crunchy) article, Barb. I had bad, bad cereal experiences as a child and it wasn’t merely because my parents wouldn’t buy SugarSlops kids’ cereal. I’m not sure what kind of reader that makes me! Oh yes, the one who wants justice in the end. That’s me.

    More crunchy articles, please.

  15. I'll pass on the roulette chips. I get enough suspense from the CSA peppers, some hybrid cross pollination between hot and bell peppers. I'm with you on waiting eagerly for the resolution at the end of the book, only reading ahead in books I don't intend to finish. I also agree that Cracker Jacks and their prizes used to be better. For good prizes now, grab bags are a better bet, and the Chicago Mix popcorn at Costco is fresher and more flavorful than the new Cracker Jacks, perfect for munching while reading a suspenseful book. Hugs!

  16. I'll work on being crunchy again, Leigh. There are so many chips to write about. :)

    And thanks for stopping by, Mary. You'll notice that I let my friends try the Doritos. Not me! I'm not into spicy things.

  17. Nice post. I laughed out loud! Off to the store for some Roulette chips! I hadn't noticed there was a difference between mysteries and thrillers until I started writing them. You illustrate it very well.

  18. Hi, Vicki. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you liked the blog, and I hope you like the chips. Please report back on how they are.

  19. Good post, Barb. I was definitely a wait-until-the-toy-pops-up reader, and I'd finish the box even after I got the toy. What a boring child--so willing to wait and thrifty, too.

  20. Thanks, Carole! I was the same way as a child. Welcome to the club.

  21. "Who can resist crackerjack, in the final evaluation?". - Jean Shepherd


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