Psst! Want to know one of the great secrets of fiction? Readers don't like to encounter exactly what they expect each time they turn the page. They like to be surprised.
And how does a writer achieve this? Every time you present a new character, describe a setting or develop a plot, create something your readers aren't looking for — something that will jar their sensibilities, cause a grin, or make them wonder.
In short, don't let your readers get too comfortable.
Characterization by surprise
You can include an element of surprise in your fiction by creating characters that belie readers' assumptions. For example, Bobbie Ann Mason begins her short story "Shiloh" by describing what would seem to be a typical western Kentucky husband and wife. Trucker Leroy Moffitt is laid up in their trailer from an accident. The audience probably expects Leroy to be undergoing physical rehabilitation and good wife Norma Jean to be performing domestic chores. Instead, Mason throws her readers a curve ball: Leroy is doing needlepoint and Norma Jean is pumping iron.
Why the deliberate role reversal? The writer sends her audience a message: Don't come into my world with preconceived notions. Who wouldn't read on?
But Mason plays fair. By the end of "Shiloh," she provides a reasonable explanation for these character traits. Leroy and Norma Jean are maturing by getting in touch with their opposite sides. Unfortunately, as they grow... hey, don't expect us to give away the entire solution.
Sometimes, thwarting your readers' expectations about a character can serve as a story's major focus. In our recent mystery "Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 1999), our professor-protagonist finds himself intrigued by a student who has suddenly stopped attending his class. On one hand, Ruth Accord is pure Eastern Kentucky mountain folk — waist-length hair, no makeup, homemade clothing — but to our main character's surprise (and that of the reader), she is extremely knowledgeable about world history and literature. What led a woman living in a closed backwoods society (she's even married to a fundamentalist preacher) to open her mind to the diversity of other cultures and religions by starting college? Not till the final scene does the professor or the reader understand her complete personality, something that accounts for her seeming duality.
Setting the scene
You can also use setting to create the unexpected. Since many scenes begin with a short description, you can include details in the scene that at first seem incongruent and bothersome. Just be sure that before the story's end you offer an explanation as to why these details are present.
Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," for instance, opens with a sparse description of Henry's lunchroom (run by a guy named George). The clock reads 5:20, but we soon discover it's 20 minutes fast. Two men who enter are described as wearing black overcoats, derby hats, silk muffiers and gloves. Not only are they dressed alike, but they're obviously overdressed for a diner.
Why the unexpected details? Why aren't the time, the ownership and the dress right? The abundance of strange details pushes readers beyond mere curiosity into contemplation.
Unexpected details in the setting, then, should not only whet readers' appetites. Collectively, they can actively engage your audience, pushing them further into your story. And if, like Hemingway, you play fair with a reason for their strangeness, your readers will be satisfied.
The plot beckons
The road we don't know intrigues us more than the road we do. Plots that suddenly take a surprising turn lure readers to hop aboard for the ride, but again the journey is ultimately unsatisfying if the writer doesn't offer a reasonable explanation.
John Cheever's "The Swimmer" begins with Ned Merrill, a middle-aged suburbanite, realizing one summer Sunday afternoon that it's time to leave the cocktail party and head home. Instead of taking a car, Ned decides he'll swim home. Not across a lake or down a river, but by a series of 15 swimming pools.
Too many writers use this technique incorrectly, emulating O. Henry at his worst. Suppose Ned Merrill had drowned and Cheever had waited till the last paragraph to inform us his protagonist had never learned to swim? Wouldn't you feel cheated? Wouldn't you wonder about the point of Merrill's marathon swim? Or, suppose that every pool (instead of one) belonged to a woman who had been his mistress. Would 15 lovers in the same subdivision have been believable?
Every twist must be prepared for, be explained and ultimately make sense in the larger context of the story. If you cannot prepare your readers to make the leap to the unexpected or have them believe the leap is possible, you have failed to create a satisfying surprise. In fact, you've probably created something far worse — disbelief.
A satisfying conclusion
The key to creating the unexpected in character, setting or plot is that you control reader response. If your readers feel superior to your story, if they feel they can anticipate not only the story's larger direction but also the smaller elements of description, characterization and plot, they won't turn the page. But if you lead characters down a road not usually taken, and explain why it's not often taken, you can expect your readers to come along for the ride.
Keeping Readers Hooked
Think outside the box. Look for the unusual detail, the different setting, the road not taken. Go beyond stereotypic characters. The hooker with the heart of gold may seem different, but she's been used before. Play fair with your endings. O. Henry twists need preparation. Provide explanations for every unusual character, element of setting, or event. Stake out that middle ground of the unusual. Try to avoid the extremes of the slightly quirky and the unbelievably outlandish.
This article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Writer's Digest.
Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet are Foundation Professors of English at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as the authors of Private Eyes from the Howdunit series.