Preparing for the unexpected is not the same as expecting the unexpected. We prepare for the unexpected in real life—why not in our writing?
Think of all the things we do to prepare for the unexpected, and even the unthinkable. Auto insurance is mandated; if you own a home, you probably have insurance on both the home and the contents; life insurance companies stay in business funded by breadwinners who plan ways to provide for their families in the unfortunate event of their early demise. We never travel without tucking a few “what if” or “just in case” items into our bags. At least, I never do. But, of course, that doesn’t mean we prepare for every possible outcome.
What about our writing? Think about mystery novels. Is the first person that may have committed the crime the criminal? Very seldom. All too often the perpetrator is the one the author portrays as the least likely to have done it.
Okay, that’s a whodunnit and it’s supposed to keep us guessing. Red herrings are stock in trade for mystery writers. What about those of us who write in other genres? All I can say is before computers, outlines were probably written with pencils that had erasers.
Every fiction author I’ve ever asked has told me that his or her characters had surprised them while they were writing. I once spent two days choreographing a key scene in a novel, only to have one of the main characters do something unexpected when I was actually at the keyboard. How did that happen? I have no idea, but it did. So…the outline was tweaked for the next two chapters.
Having unexpected things happen always perks up a reader’s interest. Sometimes they add a bit of humor, sometimes a plot twist, and sometimes lead to a different and stronger story.
BEWARE of making the unexpected appear outlandish and so unlikely that it can be considered a deus ex machine, or a god from the machine. In ancient Greek and Roman dramas, gods or goddesses were sometimes lowered by a crane onto the stage to get the hero out of an impossible situation. The hero should be able to extricate himself, although a little help from friends may be welcome, if not too improbable.
BEWARE not to take the unexpected take the plot to a place so far from the readers’ expectations that they find no satisfaction in the ending. Even Charles Dickens got caught with that one. His book Great Expectations actually has two endings. After the book was published with an unexpected ending, the readers made such an outcry that the publisher insisted he write another ending for them.
Speaking of the unexpected—I published this a full 20 minutes before midnight to get a second March blog. WordPress disagreed and dated it April 1. Happy April Fools Day to me.
Do you have a favorite book surprise? Please share with your fellow writers.
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