Let me lay out a scenario for you, one that you may have seen before. The heroes are flying their spaceship through enemy forces, far out numbered, dodging strikes left and right. With luck and the skill of their awesome pilot, they make it through and crash land on the planet below. It's near the end of the movie so you're sitting on the edge of your seat wondering if they're all going to make it through the crash - and they do, coming to a complete stop. But before they and you can finish cheering, the pilot is interrupted mid-sentence by a flying projectile. He's killed on impact, and he's one of the main characters.
Poor Wash. The Serenity crew didn't even realize that they were still in super immediate danger, and neither did I. In that moment I felt bewildered, perhaps a little betrayed, but I couldn't say that it wasn't realistic. It was a surprise, but was it too much?
What makes a surprise too big? Is it when it happens, who it happens to, how it effects the story, or a lack of forewarning? What's the biggest gotcha you'd be willing to pull on your readers, and what would you do to prepare or console them? Would you risk being the writer that the reader hates to love?
Feel free to answer/ramble in the comments. If the question inspires a Flash Friday or something similar, feel free to link to your story in the comments and please link back to here on the applicable webpage.
Ready. Set. GO.