Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everyone Loves Surprises

Although throwing swerves into a novel just for grins is something that might annoy readers, those same readers also aren't looking for something boring and predictable.  I know, I know...some of you are shouting at me, "Dammit, you just scolded us for being too tricky, and now you're saying we aren't tricky enough.  Make up your damn mind!"

Obviously, the key here is balance.  You want to be unpredictable without going overboard.  Yet how can you be unpredictable if you can't even surprise yourself?  That is where the key lies, in my opinion - most swerves are planned just for the sake of being swerves, whereas real surprises just seem to happen.

Many of us start a story and know exactly where it is going.  Since we are expecting what's next, we will usually write it like that.  This creates tedium and allows the reader to cruise along without engaging the mind in any meaningful way.  That will lead to the reader putting the book down - not the result we want to see.

While it's good to have a general idea where the story is headed, knowing too precisely is a recipe for disaster.  I almost never go into a story knowing every detail of where it's headed.  For that matter, I often don't know the ending - I simply get in the car and follow the story wherever it leads.  Sure, I steer it so it doesn't venture down too dangerous a path, but I'm not always certain of the destination.  This allows me to be surprised by what happens.

This is also another reason why I don't like to outline too far in advance.  Aside from finding times when the story takes on a life of its own, thus rendering said outline useless, it also has the potential of boxing me in.  I feel like I have to go a certain direction, and it limits enthusiasm, and when I'm not enthusiastic about writing, it shows in my work.  Trust me - if you aren't enthusiastic about what you write, the reader won't be either.

I like what I'm writing to surprise me.  I know that if it catches me off guard, it'll catch the reader off guard.  Stephen King stated that one of the best surprises of his writing career came when he decided to blow up the Free Zone Committee in The Stand.  He said he felt that the novel was meandering along and getting nowhere until Harold Lauder set a bomb and shook up the entire world of the book.  It sure as hell shook me up, and I struggled with what happened, wondering what would happen next, as well as whether others characters I cared about were in danger.

And that's what surprises generate - excitement.  King said he didn't see the bomb until it happened, and if he couldn't see it, readers sure wouldn't.  When the author is surprised, the reader is surprised.

So don't get into too predictable a pattern when you write.  Be willing to go against your own grain.  How will your readers be interested in what you wrote if you're not?

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