Writing Surprise (!)

If you’ve taken a writing class (especially one with me because I am obsessed with this idea), you’ve probably heard the Flannery O’Connor quote about how endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable.  Tall order? Yes.

I once heard Ira Glass speak about how important the element of surprise is in the stories he and his crew choose to air on This American Life.* I don’t remember the exact quote, just that he alerted me to the fact that writing has to be surprising, at least on some level, to sustain interest. The worst thing a friend can say after reading a draft is, “the ending was too predictable.” (Clutch my heart and fall over.)

I’m thinking about how hard it is to write surprise in stories and essays. It’s just easy (and dare I say, lazy) to be predictable in our writing.  I don’t know who said it to me, but I think surprise happens on the page when we explore options; when we don’t just go with the first idea.  Sometimes our first idea is great, but often, our second idea is even better.

This is the opposite of taking a successful standardized test, by the way, because standardized tests are the opposite of art.

Exploring options means understanding what our options are, which means reading a lot.  That is what it means to “read like a writer”–we’re picking up options, techniques, interesting ways of telling a story, from people who took those risks before us.  Often that means we have to read things twice (once for plot, once for technique).  It also means we have to read slowly, asking the question, “what is the writer doing right now with this sentence/paragraph/chapter?”

Surprise is harder to accomplish when writing creative non-fiction, because we’ve literally been there and done that and now we’re writing about it.  I’m wondering if maybe surprise in a creative essay is more about what you do with what happened–how you reflect upon the facts–than writing the facts themselves.  That is a major difference between fiction and non-fiction. The latter must not only tell a story but make meaning out of that story, and the quality of the essay, I think, has more to do with how the writer reflects than how the writer narrates.

In fiction,  we need to sit back and let our characters do surprising things, often terrible, horrible, disturbing things, but not always.  Mostly, things we don’t expect them to do but when they do them we say, “Ah. That makes sense.” Hence, inevitable surprise. Watch Mad Men or The Wire for example after great example of this.

*I take writers less seriously when they tell me they’ve never heard This American Life.  If you love storytelling then you love this show. Period. (Ha. Feeling a little sassy this morning.)



PROMPT: Learn a Tom Waits song.

If you don’t know who Tom Waits is, and you’re a songwriter, you’re in for a treat.  This dude has been writing songs since the 1970’s (maybe earlier) and has a huge range of styles and subject matter to delight his listeners.  He can be tender and outright frightening.  His songs have been covered by everyone who is anyone in the singer/songwriter field.

He’s kind of like Bob Dylan (who also gets covered a lot) because his voice is not  exactly what we would call pretty but his songs lend themselves to all kinds of voices.  The man just writes wonderful songs–songs that invite anyone to reinvent and play with what’s already, well, a solid piece of music.

For instance, if you’ve watched THE WIRE, you will recognize that each season begins with a different version of Tom Waits’s, “Way Down in the Hole.”  High five to the person who complied all the versions into a single Youtube video:

Season 1: Blind Boys of Alabama

Season 2: Tom Waits (himself!)

Season 3: The Neville Brothers

Season 4: DoMaJe

Season 5: Steve Earle

My favorite Tom Waits album is called Mule Variations.  I think it’s a good place to start if you’re not too familiar with his music.

SONG OF THE DAY: Chocolate Jesus

This is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Kim Taylor, covering a great Tom Waits song.