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The novel took over: Writing for Surprise

Has your writing ever surprised you? Have you ever looked at the sentence you’ve just written and been moved to laugh, cry, or seek out a professional that you can talk to about it? The art of surprise is something that writers have learned to harness, whether it be the twist in the whodunnit or the turn in the sonnet, and it’s a part of the writing process that should not be underestimated, and we all know the powerful effect a good surprise can have on us as a reader. 

Writing in 1975, Elizabeth Bishop states in a letter: ‘I don’t really know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work’. We can manufacture the hard work, of course, but it’s harder to enforce mystery and surprise. However, this blog posts contains a few ideas that might help us on our way. 

1.Get away from what you think you want to say

Have you ever started writing with the message of your poem or story completely solidly cemented in your head, or the final sentence of what you want to write fully realised? This is a dangerous business because there’s no room for the writing to take its own path if you have such firm control of it. Instead, start with the thing you want to say. Write that on the page first, then keep writing. Go beyond it. Think about how you’re going to make it heard and felt by your reader. 

2.Don’t over-expose the research 

Maybe you’ve researched the period of history for your novel so thoroughly that you feel like you’re living in the 1920s. Remember that writing it is not solely a chance to show how much you know, and that explaining every detail of everyday life is not. Characters and scenarios will feel more real if you let them happen, regardless of their historical accuracy (which you can always tidy up once you come to edit). 

3.Start with as little as possible 

This often applies to me as someone who writes from ideas, rather than with a particular format or style in mind. Maybe it’s a single word or phrase, maybe it’s a newspaper headline. If you know you want to write about it, then take it and just keep writing, with no goal in sight. See how close to the initial idea you stay. See how far away from it you go. See what is in front of you once you stop writing. 

4.Let characters do the work

When you’re stuck with a particular scenario, maybe it’s time to let your characters surprise you. As someone who writes mainly poetry, I’m always surprised when novelists say ‘my characters took on their own life’ but I’m assured that it happens. If you don’t know what to write next, ask the character. Maybe you write a quick piece in their voice to see what they want – maybe you’d rather interview them with a set of questions. 

5.What if?

When you get to a crucial point in your story or poem, look around at every open door of possibility. Maybe you thought you knew exactly how this was going to go…but what if the opposite happened? What if? Follow the paths that feel best and choose your own writing adventure! 

Image credit: “dec510” by morag.riddell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

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Posted by author: Suzannah Evans
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One thought on “The novel took over: Writing for Surprise

  • Thank you for considering the unexpected – the idea of the writing journey, where you have some idea of the destination but cannot predict every stage and memorable insight along the way can be addictive. And when you get to the ‘end’ of that journey, what other unexpected detours could you have taken, could you go back and take?

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