The unexpected

Word count: 428            Reading time: 1-2 mins

On a recent ferry ride home from the Gulf Islands, I sat in front of a couple who talked non-stop the entire trip. They spoke French with soft Parisian accents and as I eavesdropped, trying futilely to pick out words, maybe even sentences, I pictured them as the epitome of Gallic sophistication: young, stylish, poised.  

When we approached Vancouver and everyone started to head back to the car deck, I got my first good look at them. They were seniors. Senior seniors at that. He was short, stout, and balding and wore a Harley Davidson hoodie stretched over his pot belly. His jeans were rough and torn but not in a fashionable way. He walked round-shouldered and slumped. Her thin, brassy red hair lifted off her head in a frizzy peak. The Kelly-green vest she wore clashed with the gaudy orange underneath it. Enough gold hung around her neck to pay the National Debt. I laughed at my clichéd assumption and enjoyed the surprise of how they really looked.

I love surprises in fiction too. But I don’t like being deceived or manipulated. I don’t want to get to the end of a story or chapter and find out that sequence was just a dream. I don’t want to be led to believe that the main love interest was cheating on his or her partner only to find out it was just a close friend or relative who was being embraced so passionately. And I sure don’t want a new character or device introduced at the end of a novel, a Deus ex machina solution to a complicated problem.

As I work, I love uncovering the surprises in my own stories and characters too but these appear slowly. In the first draft I find out who the players are. The second draft helps me get to know them better. It’s only in the third or fourth revision of a novel, as I push along the question of what if, that my characters start to reveal their idiosyncrasies and unusual interests. Between each revision, I follow the advice of Steven Pinker and give them all a rest, “Write many drafts, separated by a long enough interval so your writing will seem strange to yourself.” When I go back to a work after a long interval, it’s like opening the box of Christmas decorations from the far corner of the basement: full of delightful things I’d forgotten were there.

Where are the surprises in what you are writing? How do you uncover them?

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Photo by: Royce DeGrie