Why You Need to Cultivate Surprise

janav Creativity, Try This, Writing Leave a Comment

One of the adages I’ve found most valuable is, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” In the eternal war of planners vs. pantsers, this is the challenge for both. If you’re a planner, you risk nailing everything down and losing that sense of surprise; if you’re a pantser, you risk being constantly surprised and ending up with a mess that doesn’t add up to anything at the end.

Finding the balance is hard. It takes being able to see far enough ahead that you can lay track in a coherent direction, and also leaving enough room to allow for the unexpected spark that takes the story somewhere new.  

It comes down to trusting the process, especially in the first draft stages. I often have to remind myself to trust the process, knowing that if I stay true to that, I am likely to be rewarded by an exciting development, a new idea, a plot twist - something. Of course, in the buzz of excitement that follows the “What if…” it can be hard to tell whether the Shiny New Thing is a good idea, or not. It’s not always possible to tell until you’ve written into it a while. Does it seem surprising but inevitable? Is it organic to the story, or too left-field, a gimmick? If it doesn’t work out, you can always backtrack. It’s best not to get too attached to making it work, but to treat it lightly, to play with it a little, and see what happens.

Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to make an effort to find surprise. If your writing seems stale, or plodding, if nothing interesting is happening; if, worst of all, you, the writer, are bored, it’s time to metaphorically rub a couple of sticks together and see if you can strike a spark. There are a few ways to do this (it’s best to do these by hand):

One is to do a little mind-mapping. Take a piece of paper, write the name of a character, or an object, or an event or situation in the middle. Draw a circle around it. Then start randomly writing down any associations that pop into your head. Draw a circle around it, and then make a line to the main idea. Let other ideas and associations branch off from those.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Simply write “What if…” and then keep going. Don’t let your hand lift from the page. Every time you get stuck, start again with “What if…” Keep going until the timer goes off.

Try storyboarding. It’s best to take a larger size paper for this. Draw squares for each beat of the scene. Doesn’t matter if you can draw or not. Draw the basics of what is happening. As you draw, think about: what is the action here? What is the emotion I need to convey?

Take yourself out: go somewhere where you can fill your eyes with new images, your head with new thoughts. An art gallery, a museum, a craft store. Or, just go for a walk. Don’t listen to anything on headphones. Let your thoughts wander. Go for at least an hour.

Sleep on it: write down a question or story problem in a journal just before bed. Ask for an answer. Be open to surprise. Believe that an answer will come. When you wake up, immediately grab your notebook and write down anything that comes into your head, even if it doesn’t seem to be related, or to make sense.

To find surprise, we have to be open to breaking free of the rational side of our brains. We have to be willing to be messy and imperfect. We have to trust that any surprise will be a good one, and that we will make it work, to our benefit and our readers’.     

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