Have you seen that new Cingular ad where the mother and daughter look like they’re fighting, even sound like they’re fighting, but then you pay attention to the dialog, and they’re actually saying wonderfully nice things to each other? It’s surprising and funny and it catches your attention because of the unexpected dichotomy. That, my friends, is a good ad. But more important to me: it’s a good writing lesson.

When you’re reading a book, you want both the familiar (ah, I like books with humor, or I like scary thrillers), but you also crave the innovative, the surprise, otherwise, it feels like the same story being told, about characters you won’t remember ten minutes after putting down the book. Finding that unexpected, however, is the hard part, and so often, I think writers get caught up in the mechanics of what it takes to write the novel that they forget to step back and ask, “Is this unique? is it innovative? Am I going somewhere with this which will surprise the reader?”

That surprise is the key to holding the reader’s attention.  There are obstacles to achieving surprise in a lot of genres. In romance, you pretty much know the couple are going to end up together. In mysteries, the problem will very likely be solved, the answer discovered, by the end of the book. In many thrillers, the bad guys will be beaten by the good guys (but usually not before the bad guys do a significant amount of damage / torment)… and so on. So if you can’t end the story by completely flouting conventions, you have to make sure that the journey to the end contains the unexpected.

Notice I didn’t say, “twists and turns.”  Most writers put in twists and turns, most of us attempt to weave a story of choices made by the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) — each of which forces the other side to regroup, rethink, and form a new plan to overcome the obstacle in order to achieve the goal. The problem is, a lot of twists can be predicted, so the real challenge is to find a way — through character, through unique setting — to present the character with a set of choices they’d never have thought likely, and then from there, have results they hadn’t really predicted.

It comes down to character, ultimately. If a writer sets up a unique character and throws an impossible obstacle at them, deprives them of any easy answer and then looks for ways to have that character follow through, trying to resolve the issue based on their own personality and quirks, then the choices are going to (generally) be more interesting and unexpected. I think one of the methods of doing this is when making a story choice, the author probably ought to discard the first, second, and maybe even the third choices on how to do whatever they’ve set out to do. Those choices are usually the generic, the one everyone would think of, and probably not unique to that character and setting and obstacle. Finding the fourth or fifth choice tends to start probing the area of the unexpected — and yet — organic solution.

What have you read lately that had something unexpected happen which, even now, stands out in your memory as a good story?

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