Mending my ways and letting you know a little sooner – I’ll be in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 16th because the library system has chosen Dave at Night for its Kids Read Across Rhode Island. I am so honored! Here’s a link: http://www.newportlibraryri.org/npl/2012/05/06/kids-reading-across-rhode-island/.
Last December M.K.B. wrote, I was curious about surprises in stories. Do you have to give hints of what surprise (I’m talking about in non-mystery stories)? Like in that movie “Tangled” (well, they actually told you she was a princess in the beginning but I couldn’t really think of anything else) they let her see a picture of the baby princess and she recognized her eyes as her own. Do you have to do something like that or can I just hit my readers with the frying pan of surprise?
I love that, “the frying pan of surprise” as an expression! And I love surprises in stories.
There are two kinds of frying-pan surprises. The good kind smacks you, astonishes you, and knocks all the preceding plot elements into place.
The bad kind slams you and leaves you gasping, “Whuh?”
The most effective use of the good frying pan comes throughout the original (I haven’t read the later books) Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. The series was written for adults, but I’d say the three books I read are appropriate for middle school kids and above. The surprises keep whamming you between the eyes and yet they make perfect sense.
The bad frying pan, in my opinion, is epitomized by the TV series Lost (high school at least). Time travel, smoke monsters, polar bears in the tropics, good guys who turn bad, bad guys who turn good, why did I watch this? Nothing adds up. There’s an LOL video summary of all seasons but the last on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC6jcj3V53E, also with adult content. The last season, alas, resolves nothing.
This has come up before on the blog: the temptation, which I feel, too, near the end of a story, to drop a bomb on all the characters or to have an asteroid hit the earth and wipe it out. This is the bad frying pan at its worst.
So how do we achieve the good fp and eschew the bad?
We drop in hints and bury them.
Things happen in real life that are unbelievable, that you can’t put into fiction because suspension of disbelief will fall apart. Here are two minor examples. If you have better ones, please post them.
In the first, my husband, David, was walking in the winter in New York City, icicles hanging from skyscrapers above. He saw a clock in a store window and drew back to look at the time just as an icicle crashed down from thirty stories above. If he hadn’t pulled back, that icicle would have clocked him, so to speak. In fiction, this would seem contrived, the surprise of the icicle canceled by the contrivance.
In the second, my parents and I many years ago visited a sick aunt at her apartment. I was grown up and married by then. David had shortly before had a job interview during which he filled out a psychological questionnaire aimed at revealing his management style. Thoughtfully thinking I’d be interested, he asked for extra copies. When I visited Aunt Harriet, I brought the copies with me to entertain everyone. The test was long, maybe five or six pages. My father took his to another room and spent forty-five minutes on it. My mother breezed through hers in ten minutes, sitting right in the room with me and my aunt. The two of them, my father and my mother, answered every single question the same way, although my parents had such different personalities: my father sunny, my mother worried; my father stubborn, my mother persuadable; my father an appreciator of humor, my mother actively funny. Not credible in a story.
Let’s take the first real-life event and see if we can make it work in fiction with the buried-hints approach. David’s clock radio wakes him to a meteorologist’s warnings about an ongoing ice storm. At breakfast he and his wife (not me, this is fiction now) quarrel about the family finances. The wife’s work hours have been cut back, and David’s been unemployed for a year. Money fights keep cropping up. He’s pawned his watch, and she gave her heirloom china set to the consignment shop. After the argument, they stop speaking to each other. He opens the local paper and reads his horoscope, which predicts a lucky day. Encouraged, he shows the prediction to his wife. They make up. He sets off for his job interview, where he’s given the management style questionnaire, which I’m dragging in from my other anecdote. His style turns out to be emotional, but the company is seeking someone with an intuitive bent, so he doesn’t get the position. He leaves the office building in a black mood, even thinking of tossing himself in the icy river. But more sensible thoughts prevail. He pauses to check the time in a store window to see if he can catch the early train home, and the icicle descends exactly where he would have been if he hadn’t stopped, fulfilling the prophesy and enabling him to apply for another job another day.
The icicle still drops out of a clear blue sky. It’s still a surprise, but now it satisfies, now that we’re set up for it by the horoscope and the pawned watch, which are buried by the details of the argument and money woes. If you were really writing this as a story and not merely a summary, you would do the burying more effectively by including the actual dialogue during the argument, showing the receptionist at the job interview, the office itself, David (poor man) liking what he sees, getting his hopes up, feeling that he’s connecting with the HR person who’s describing what his future duties might be. With all this, the watch recedes to nothing but a trivial detail, and the horoscope hovers pleasantly as a question mark that we hope will take us to a happy ending.
With preparation surprises satisfy. Without, they fall flat. In Fairest (SPOILER ALERT), for example, the creature in the mirror comes as a surprise, but the reader is prepared for something about that mirror for a long while. If the mirror hadn’t been performing tricks, Aza’s arrival inside it would be just weird.
It’s total fun to drop in the hints and set up the surprises, so here are some prompts:
∙ Take one of your own improbable, real-life experiences and fictionalize it so that the surprise works. If you don’t have one, ask friends and family for anecdotes.
∙ Three students at a school for odd children love table tennis and are the most enthusiastic members of the school ping-pong club. Sonja’s special skill is the power to force her voice and words out of the mouths of hamsters. Tom can make his hair stand on end at will. Raymond turns to stone when he’s bored and liquifies when he’s excited. These traits have so far been useless in their game. Raymond even dissolves into an orange puddle at tense moments. Drop in and bury hints that lead to a surprise victory when the team plays against the reigning non-odd champions.
∙ This is your chance to use that asteroid. The Monot tribe and the Hurlens have been at war in the mountains of Ael for decades. Make it satisfying when the asteroid hits and destroys them all (or all but two, if you’re tenderhearted).
Have fun, and save what you write!