Made to Stick for Writers: Unexpected

Friday, July 30

To make something unexpected you must break a pattern. Doing so captures the audience’s attention. “Once upon a time…” is so common that the sentence fails to surprise.

In Patricia Kindl’s book Goose Chase she began with, “The King killed my canary today.”
Already we have several questions: Why did the king kill her canary? What does he have against birds or the narrator? Who is this king? How did he kill it? Was it an accident?

First of all, it’s surprising. It’s not the usual way for a fairytale to begin. Secondly, it’s interesting. We realize that we’re missing a lot of vital information and so we want to keep reading to find answers.

To be unexpected you must grab the audience’s interest and, more importantly, hold it.

We become surprised because what we expect to happen doesn’t. In other words, our “guessing machines” fail us.
If that’s the case, then it should be easy to create a “hook” at the beginning of our stories, right? All we should need to do is write a surprising sentence. Wrong.

While our hooks need to be somewhat surprising, it can be difficult to craft one that avoids planting a red herring.
For example, if the first sentence was “Sitting in the shade of the tree early that morning, I could never have imagined that by sundown my whole family would be dead.”
What! We inwardly gasp. How did the whole family die?
We’d be curious to discover the cause and to read the, no doubt, thrilling adventure that led to their demise.

But what if the book suddenly begins describing every aspect of the narrator’s staircase. She then explains to us that her “whole family” consists of an old greyhound named Maddock who trips on said staircase and dies. Thus, by sundown, the narrator’s “whole family” is dead. It’s only after that episode that we get to the actual story, which is much less thrilling than we imagined.

You’d probably feel tricked and frustrated. The hook sentence turned out to be a red herring that did nothing but attempt to lure you into a dull story.

To write a successful hook it must both surprise and reflect the main idea, or the core, of the story. The stupid dog dying was NOT the story’s main idea and so it failed. Miserably.


Now that we’ve got the reader’s attention, how do we keep it?
Let’s talk Velcro; Velcro connects because one side is made of hooks and the other is made of loops. The hooks snag the loops and Voila! It sticks together.

We have the “hooks’, so to speak. We have the answers to the reader’s questions. But before we can answer their questions, we have to make them want the answer. We have to make them realize that they’re missing crucial information.

To do so, ask yourself, “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”

Once we know the questions ourselves, we can gently point out what the reader doesn't know by creating mystery.

“The man was killed by the king because he distributed treasonous flyers” leaves very little to become curious about.
By withholding information we can create mystery.
Instead, we could show the man being arrested by the king’s guard. We could show the guard proclaiming that, as a traitor, he will be tried.
Now we’ve got the reader asking questions; What did the man do that was so treasonous? What will happen at his trial? Will he end up dying?

Part 1: Simple
Part 2: Unexpected (You are here)
Part 3: Concrete
Part 4: Credible
Part 5: Emotional
Part 6: Story
Part 7: Epilogue

5 comment(s):

Marian Monday, August 02, 2010  

Great post! This is definitely something I need to work on. I've been thinking about how I want one of my new stories to start out, and I think this will help a lot!

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