Crafting Surprise in Fiction


by Beth Ann Bauman



There are truisms about life we all accept—e.g., rejection and loss are painful, success feels great, grief is sad, and so on. And undoubtedly you’ll include universal truisms in your work because you want to reflect life accurately. But what’s more interesting and real is when characters and events surprise us in some way. Because here’s another truism—life is strange. Consider the particular details of any situation and you’ll see that all pockets of life contain mystery, and the more your work reflects this phenomenon the better it will be. Maybe this aspect of writing above all others is what makes fiction interesting.


So how do you do it? Do you deliberately set out to create surprise? No. The artifice will show through and you’ll likely wind up with something flat and uninspired. Instead, the unexpected happens naturally when we go deep enough into our material and fictional worlds, when we loosen the reins of our intentions. Then mysterious things start to happen organically—things that surprise but feel inevitably right. Complexity shows up in characters and situations. Interesting layers get added. Universal truisms get challenged. The way to get there is to give your work time and attention and a little breathing space to assert itself.


Let’s look at an example of surprise:


Here’s an excerpt from Louise Fitzhugh’s classic middle-grade novel Harriet the Spy and some back story for context: Harriet alienates all her friends when they find her spy notebook and read all the mean (but brutally honest) things she’s said about them. Ole Golly, her childhood nurse who recently married and moved away, writes to Harriet, offering advice after learning about Harriet’s ordeal.


Dear Harriet,


I have been thinking about you and I have decided that if you are going to be a

writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven’t a thing but

notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me. “Beauty is truth,

truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” John Keats.

And don’t you ever forget it. Now in case you ever run into the following problem, I

want to tell you about it. Naturally, you put down the truth in your notebooks. What

would be the point if you didn’t? And naturally those notebooks should not be read

by anyone else, but if they are, then, Harriet, you are going to have to do two

things, and you don’t like either of them:


1) You have to apologize.

2) You have to lie.


Otherwise you are going to lose a friend. Little lies that make people feel better are

not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or

telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous

new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use

against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.


Another thing. If you’re missing me I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is

gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I

guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can

even make stories from yours, but remember, they don’t come back. Just think

about how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years

old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.


No more nonsense.


Ole Golly Waldenstein


How wonderfully nuanced the letter is. The expectation, of course, is that Ole Golly will scold Harriet for her meanness, impress on her the Golden Rule. Instead, she respects Harriet’s astuteness and encourages her powers of observation, while offering a way to make amends: lying is sometimes necessary. There’s no condescension here. Harriet, the eleven-year-old budding writer, is treated with great regard. Always be true to yourself is the clear-eyed message Ole Golly imparts. But love is ultimately the way forth.


And, indeed, Ole Golly’s love for Harriet shines forth. Reading the letter we feel the deep intimacy between the two. Intuiting how much Harriet misses her, Ole Golly offers up the toughest love. I don’t miss you, you are a lovely memory, she asserts, but please send me your writing. She offers Harriet a way to simultaneously let go and hold on.


Funny, smart, compassionate, and refreshing—the letter is beautifully resonant. In 336 words, an entire relationship is suggested, one that is layered and astonishingly true.



This essay was published in Creativity & Compassion: Spalding Writers Celebrate 20 Years, published by Good River Books. Copyright © 2021.


 

Beth Ann Bauman, a member of Spalding’s writing for children and young adults faculty, is the author of the short story collection Beautiful Girls and the young-adult novels Rosie and Skate, a New York Times editors’ choice and Booklist’s top ten first novels for youth, and Jersey Angel, selected by Publishers Weekly, The Boston Globe, and The Horn Book as a best summer book. Her work has earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly and has been translated into German and Dutch. Her awards include fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She teaches fiction writing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies.