Sunday, 24 April 2011

U is for Unexpected Delivery

Within a story the plot will go in various directions and surprises and revelations will occur. But in between all that people will move around and interact, and that’s where writers can come undone. Informing readers of ordinary activities in ordinary ways is going to slide through their heads without really registering. Even if a story is true, if the events are described accurately and with authentic touches, that won’t necessarily make it interesting.

Giving a character goal, even a simple one like making a coffee, and then showing them achieving that goal, is dull. But some writers think if they show the process in great detail it implants meaning and resonance to the mundane. And sometimes it does (but not automatically — you have to know what you’re doing and what effect it will have on the reader). If I think I know what’s going on, and it turns out it’s exactly what I thought, whether it was a big plot twist or some tiny incidental moment, it will deaden my curiosity. Even if there’s plenty of exciting things to come, I will detach from the story, skim or skip bits or give up altogether, because my desire to know what happens next isn’t being stimulated. And dammit, it’s the writer's job to stimulate me.


The thing that keeps readers engaged with a story is the unexpected. The word ‘unexpected’ can imply something extraordinarily spectacular, but that’s just going from one extreme to another. Telling me a character is having chicken for dinner is mundane. Telling me he’s having roast hippo is absurd. If the wife say’s “We’re having chicken tonight” and the husband comes home to find  shepherd’s pie, that’s enough to draw the  reader’s interest.

All you need is to not go directly from A to B. You might start at A and your destination may well be B, but how you traverse between them makes all the difference.

If you concentrate too much on getting information across and not enough on how you are communicating it, the writing can seem pedestrian. If people ask each other normal every day things, even though that’s a part of real life, it can read as plodding. Real can very easily become dull.   

Too often in stories by aspiring authors, the characters are parked in neutral, just ‘a person’ waiting for events to give their life meaning. They see things in a very straightforward manner. They walk out of their house and if they feel happy, they smell the flowers and whistle. They do what you would expect to convey what the writer means in the most direct manner, and it’s boring to read. The unexpected can lift them out of that. If a man walks out of his house feeling happy and sees a glorious dog turd glistening in the sunshine, it’s going to make the reader pay attention.

In order to get noticed you have to produce something different. That doesn’t mean something completely original no one has ever seen before, just not what they were expecting in that specific context. And you know what they were expecting? It was the first thing you thought of when you wrote it. And the second. And probably the third. Throw them all away and keep going.

It’s not easy. If you try to come up with a story from the ground up, your mind will naturally pull you towards the tried and true. Clichés. But it doesn’t require genius to figure out another way, it only requires you keep rewriting, and eventually (hopefully sooner rather than later), when you've exhausted all the obvious avenues, something unexpected will happen.

23 comments:

Anne K. Albert said...

How true. No one, not reader, not author expects the unexpected...but it sure makes for great reading!

Laura Josephsen said...

I love stories that can surprise me and keep me guessing. You're so right that those elements of unexpected events draw the readers along in the book. In my current novel, I've found that quite a lot of the things that I consider unexpected events are the ones that completely took me by surprise. I didn't plan all of them--some of them just came out as I was writing and I'm hoping that since it surprised me, it might surprise the reader as well. It's the things that I have to plan that can be trickier.

Excellent advice again. Thanks!

Rusty Webb said...

Good advice. I think reading Cryptonomicon derailed my writing for years, Neal Stephenson is a master at compelling digressions. I seem to recall reading a two page aside about captain crunch cereal that had absolutely nothing to do with anything - yet, I was riveted. That novel was a series of excursions from the story that somehow made a marvelous whole . So when I decided to spice things up in my novel by adding scenes about the perfect baked potato or my favorite screen size on a laptop... well, things didn't go well for me.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Avoid the boring details!

Halli Gomez said...

Thanks for the great tips that keep coming! I agree with this and have skimmed over paragraphs because they are mundane. Always a challenge to come up with something unexpected! I love challenges!

Cruella Collett said...

Yes, yes, yes! This is soooo right! I remember reading once an editor/agent/writer/Stephen King?/someonewhoknewwhattheyweretalkingabout saying that the reader should always know what every character on every page wanted, their goal (as you say). I think this is a very good rule to abide by as a writer. You will never forget the target of the plot!

the writing pad said...

Another excellent post - and, I agree, as a reader, I always like to expect the unexpected; the odd shift of light, and a few aha moments - it's what keeps me going from page to page. Thanks for more wise words :-)

Paula Martin said...

Agree about the mundane - a recent novel I read had about 4 pages devoted to a shopping trip to buy clothes, which did absolutely nothing to move the story on. I was waiting for something 'unexpected' to happen, but nothing did. An opportunity missed.

Bob Scotney said...

Quite unexpectedly you became my 100th follower; I've just become your 250th.
An unexpected delivery for me was always the ball that turned a different way than I expected when playing cricket.

Hart Johnson said...

Great post! I have a tendency to want to put in all the steps and it is definitely a chore on editing to pull out the unneeded... Unexpected delivery though, I can shoot for!

Charmaine Clancy said...

Excellent post - sometimes the expected can become unexpected too. If a story is heading in an obvious direction, one so horrible we assume it will turn at the last moment, but it doesn't and the narrative makes us endure what it promised but we wouldn't let ourselves believe would happen.
Only 4 more letters to go!
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Rachael Harrie said...

Most interesting post :) I love your tip about throwing out the first three or more things you think of and digging deeper to find something unexpected. LOL, and I wasn't expecting the dog poo comment ;)

Hugs,

Rach

Josh Hoyt said...

This is so true about rewriting. I find many times the first thing that comes out is the usual the boring but when I erase and rewrite the unusual the different comes out.

Lucy Adams said...

Excellent advice today. And very well written. Thank you. Even experienced writers need reminders about keeping their craft clever and entertaining.

Lucy

Lydia K said...

Excellent post. I had to learn this lesson myself--so true about not deadening the curiosity!

Arlee Bird said...

I like surprises. If everything happens the way I expect it then why waste my time reading--unless of course the writing is so spectacular and engaging that the reading is more important knowing where the story goes. How often does that happen?


Hope you join us in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post on Monday May 2nd.
Lee

The Golden Eagle said...

Unexpected aspects to a story always help to keep my interested when I'm reading. I'm working on the plot for the novel I'm in the middle of rewriting--surprises are something I try to keep in mind.

Also, I answered your question about Shroedinger's Cat in my Teleportation post comment threat.

Ellie said...

Well said. I think this is one of the reasons I'm a pantser and not a plotter. Writing for me is an organic process, where the unexpected arises out of the characters actions and not because I need to get from A to B.

Great post!

Ellie Garratt

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the great comments. I know my posts take some wading through so the effort is very much appreciated.
cheers,
mood

Madeleine said...

So true, if you put it in then it should move the story along :O)

Tyrean Martinson said...

So true! Your tips about writing are great! Glad I found your blog through A to Z.
http://tyreanswritingspot.blogspot.com/

Michelle Teacress said...

You've made some excellent points. I like watching funny movies, and they're funniest when the characters accomplish their goals in unexpected ways. :)

Kimberly said...

Awesome post. (now by the title alone, I had thought you'd had a new baby and it was a surprise) :) Hee hee.

I like surprises too, especially when I can look back and all the pieces were there. I like the ones that make me think about them for days.

post a comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
 

MOODY WRITING © 2009

PSD to Blogger Templates realized by OOruc.com & PSD Theme designed by PSDThemes.com