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I Didn't Expect That and It Is Wonderful

Posted on Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 2:42 PM

Surprise is most useful in our efforts to win and hold reader interest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I've never come around to adding sound to my computer, so I do not spend time roaming YouTube. Fortunately, a friend clued me in to a YouTube piece he came across that, he said, I must see.

Several weeks later, while doing a presentation skills workshop where folks had all the right equipment, I got connected with the piece, which showed primary grade children gathering for lunch in a school cafeteria.

It shows the kids getting seated, when into their space comes one, then two, then three strangers, adults, who act out a scene of slight menace and more than slight absurdity. Their invasion, a chase, is given voice, voice of high volume and energy, through snippets from arias of operas by Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini, high-powered composers to be sure. The invading culprits are two tenors and a soprano.

The video is a perfect delight. The children are revealed stunned: their faces in a blaze of expressions, their body motions large scale, their noise turned to silence, their wonder evident, their applause at the end generous. They had been surprised by a happening many of them are likely to remember for a long time.

I know not the reason these entertainers were brought into the school: for the students just to be entertained, for them to be introduced to something unfamiliar, for the support of a music appreciation program, to keep the kids controlled during lunch, perhaps more than one of these or something completely different?

But the little feature story reminded me once again that when people, particularly children, are introduced to experiences of intrigue and value, they are likely to be affected and, perhaps, changed. Musicians and music educators understand that. Writers understand that, whether journalists, playwrights, novelists, or poets; whether writers for children or adults.

The Importance of Surprise in Writing

When I gave a keynote address earlier this summer, during a "Masterclass in Nonfiction " offered by the Highlights Foundation for adults interested in writing for children, I decided to begin my address with this YouTube charmer. I titled my speech "I Didn't Expect That and It Is Wonderful. " And such was my setup for a lecture on surprise: the importance of surprise in writing. Writers need to supply surprise. Editors need to make sure this significant element makes its presence felt in as many stories and ways as possible. Surprise is most useful in our efforts to win and hold reader interest.

To quote writer Anne Bernays: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently; you can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprise is as bland as oatmeal. "


For the body of my keynote presentation, I prepared a list of ways that surprise can enrich copy, emphasizing that shock, though certainly one through which the reader is sure to be corralled, is far from the only one. SHOCK does surprise, and when we have a shocking story to tell, then we should tell it. Yes, we should shock, cause shivers or shakes or trepidations, throw emotional bombs, whatever is applicable.

But, I added, surprise is a many-splendored thing. The unexpected can take on other raiment, other expressions, other means to capture our reader. Here are others, starting with a given that should never be forgotten.

Striking Prose

STRIKING PROSE can surprise. It is a basic splendor, a basic surprise without which not much else matters. What Anne Bernays termed "nice writing " does matter. I call it good writing: writing that, in its own language-respecting way, is compelling versus blah-inspiring or even disturbing. I mean writing that's well put together, accurate, brief as it can be, without wastage of words. Writing that is clear, correct, complete, so that -- even though the reader may be yearning for more information -- he or she doesn't require it because the necessary goods are present in the copy. Writing without holes: that flows from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, section to section, in other words writing I can follow. And, yes, writing that's grammatical with words spelled correctly and punctuation to help guide me from start to finish.

Without solid writing, the rest is immaterial. You will lose your reader, and all extra twists and turns and experiments on your part that you engage in to elicit attention through surprise will vanish. Remember my oft-repeated "Read your copy out loud and listen " advice to assist you in achieving copy that is good and solid.


How else can you attract your reader through a form of surprise? Try AMAZEMENT. Share the unbelievable that is true, the factual that is stranger than fiction, as does Brian Doyle in an article on hummingbirds for The American Scholar: "Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be 200 years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old. "

The amazing hummingbird: stranger than fiction. Drinking in such nature-is-a-wonder details can surprise.


And so, we come to details. DETAILS certainly should have a place on our list of surprise-causes. The power of details, used in appropriate fashion, choice, and extent, cannot be argued. Details are the jeweled substance for our work.

Mark Twain witnessed the 1868 San Francisco earthquake in powerful detail, some of which I share with you:

"There came a really terrific shock. The ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. As I reeled about on the pavement, trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The front of a four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a dust like a great volume of smoke!

"A streetcar had stopped. The horses were rearing and plunging. The passengers were pouring out at both ends, and one fat man had crashed halfway through a glass window on one side of the car, got wedged fast, and was squirming and screaming like an impaled madman.

"Every door of every house was vomiting a stream of human beings.... One woman who had been washing a naked child ran down the street holding it by the ankles as if it were a dressed turkey. " And so on. Details adorned by Mark Twain in his adroit and inimitable literary way.

So we have surprise as shock or suspense, as solid writing, as amazement, and as details. I'll complete the list with another six techniques next month, techniques that can cause you reader to say: "I Didn't Expect That and It is Wonderful. "

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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