Ron Carlson, in his book “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” advises the writer to “introduce a character by considering the least likely thing he or she may do. How can the character surprise us?” This element of surprise comes from the writer’s choice to write against the grain, to write counter to prevailing drift of the character’s behavior.
The character who embraces the “least likely thing” will no doubt produce great conflict. I like to think of this variety of “going against the grain” in terms of a worst case scenario. As in, given the considerations of your character, what is the worst (read: most fraught) thing that could happen? Whatever that may be will likely make for a healthy element of surprise.
It’s important for the writer to remain surprised about small things too. The device of the plot twist is a staple of the thriller and the mystery, but the kind of surprise I’m thinking of is more micro in its approach, rather than macro in design. To paraphrase Alice Munro, you pull something unexpected straight out of the air and it sets your story on end. The writer’s element of surprising herself, mid-sentence, is a habit cultivated with practice, and doing so can produce depth, texture, and a sense of the story coming into its own.
Munro’s variety of surprise isn’t necessarily about the surprise of external action, like a plot twist in a thriller—though it can be. As a literary device, this element of surprise might be more of the plot twist’s nuanced second cousin. It’s not only about a character’s actions going against the grain, but a writer going against a set idea of her story. This effect is achieved by reversing the direction an action seems to be headed the moment it’s being written—something I’ve come to think of as “the mid-sentence twist.”
For example, say you’ve got a character named Howard standing on a curb. He hates his job and as he waits to cross the street, he’s building up his courage to go into work and quit. That red light is, of course, an ideal place for him to mull things over. This static moment could allow for back story, or a suggestion of what’s to come. But what if the moment he steps off that curb, he doesn’t cross the street? What if he turns around instead? Even as the writer is writing toward that moment before Howard walks, anticipating the moment he enters the office, passes the cubicles, sees the closed door behind which his boss awaits, what if the writer reverses her plan, and in a conscious choice to write against the grain of her idea, has Howard go somewhere completely different instead? A similar, but more provocative choice might be to suddenly have Howard decide to cross before the light turns green.
What’s being cultivated in this approach is an expected action on the part of the character, but as importantly, the ability of the writer to engage with the work in an unexpected way. To surprise her reader, yes, but also to learn how to surprise herself.
The mid-sentence twist does wonders to reduce writerly boredom, producing unexpected ideas and revving that all important sense of engagement and discovery. Being able to engage oneself is the first step to engaging the reader, and the element of mid-sentence surprise keeps a draft lively line by line.
How do you maintain the element of surprise as you write?