I was hoping to surprise you, but a predictable guy like me, who am I fooling other than my mama? Although I don’t think I’ve mentioned that at the moment there is a decorative skeleton in my office at work. I don’t mean my own, as I’m still using it. Somehow the medical journal I work for has inherited a skeleton, and we move it from time to time to different offices, with costume changes along the way. The skeleton made it into my office on Tuesday to help celebrate my birthday, wearing a black beret (the skeleton, not me—I wear a brown fedora).
But I want to talk about something else, if I could stop being distrac— oh, hey, a cloud that looks like a bunny. Hope it’s not a snow cloud. Anyway, I’m currently reading a book about two teenage girls, and the book has repeatedly dropped hints that one of the girls is having some serious trouble. So of course I began to think that at some point the author will bring this into the open. Then it occurred to me that since the writer has been slipping in little things to make us think something, that’s probably not what is happening. I’m guessing that a good writer, which this author is, would try to surprise our expectations.
In connection with this, not long ago I did a review of the novel Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, a book I enjoyed, and one of the things that most struck me about it was Jackson’s almost mystical ability to come up with one surprise after another. Maybe you’re a smarter reader than I am, but I kept thinking, “Wow, I never saw that coming.” I genuflect before such a wizard of wonderment.
These two books got me to pondering the element of surprise in a book. Are books better when they have surprises? Given the effort that writers go to to come up with surprises, the answer is surely yes. There is even a large genre—murder mysteries—in which the basic premise is to try to surprise the reader. If you can figure out whodunnit ahead of time, the mystery isn’t as good.
People like surprises, probably love them, in fact. I can think of a few quick examples from life in general: birthday or Christmas presents (which are wrapped up so we won’t know what they are), surprise parties, the child toy jack-in-the-box (which is an odd one, because you know it’s coming).
Within fiction, there are several kinds of surprise that might be used, beginning with the obvious thing, elements of plot, as I alluded to above. I’m thinking that maybe, at least in literature, the intensity of surprise might be on one end of a continuum that involves novelty in general. So even if something doesn’t make us think that we were surprised, we still feel pleased by the unexpected newness. From that point of view we can include settings that feel exotic (that little hotel in the south of France decorated with Johnny Cash memorabilia), or unusual characters (the detective who tracks down killers but who likes to bake cakes to relax), or interesting style (such as will be found in the novel I’m currently writing).
Maybe a love of surprises comes from the same psychological space that leads us to fast cars, bungee jumping, tequila shots, line dancing, lines of coke, and gun-running with leaky boats on moonless nights. OK, no, I got a little carried away there. Forget the bungee jumping. But the point is, we’re bored, damn it, we want something to enliven life. And if we can feel a pleasant surge of surprise that a character did not die after all, or that someone is actually the daughter of the gardener, then maybe we don’t need the coke and leaky boats.
But before I forget, I didn’t say that the skeleton in my office is also wearing a shirt and pants, along with a colorful banner that says “It’s your birthday”. Since I’ve been working there for almost eight months, I wasn’t surprised to find it in my office. What surprised me was when it began to speak, saying things that I could write down and use as a blog entry.