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Posted on Saturday, September 29, 2018 at 12:01 AM

Provide surprise and capture reader interest!

By Peter P. Jacobi

Last month, in concision, I took you through part one of a keynote address I gave at a master class for adult writers sponsored by the Highlights Foundation in July. As I told you, I titled the talk "I Didn't Expect That, and It Is Wonderful."

The subject was the element of surprise.

That didn't necessarily mean, I explained, dealing out suspense or spooking the readers, shocking or freaking them out, although those approaches certainly can serve to surprise. I quoted writer Anne Bernays. "Nice writing," she has argued, "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."

I started you on a list of ways we, as writers and editors, can provide surprise and, thereby, hold reader interest. I took you through the power of awarding the reader with striking prose and with amazement and with details, each a "splendored" way to keep readers with you. I now move on.


Cleverness is another way, meaning a unique or unexpected or striking way of thinking. The remarkable Bill Bryson, who can make the most complex subject seem simple and can see the humor in most anything including his own inadequacies, uses the clever.

His essay in I'm A Stranger Here Myself, titled "Life's Mysteries," begins with an admission. "I don't understand most things. I really don't. I am full of admiration for people who can talk knowledgeably about household wiring or torque ratios on their car engines, but that's not me, I'm afraid. I remember years ago, after buying my first car, being asked how big the engine was. 'Oh, I don't know,' I said, quite sincerely. 'About this big, I suppose,' and I spread my arms to the appropriate dimensions."

He lists the subject matters he doesn't understand. "I don't know what an enzyme is, or an electron or proton or quark. Don't have the faintest idea. I don't even know my own body. I couldn't begin to tell you what my spleen does or where you look to find it. I wouldn't know my own endocrine glands if they reached out and goosed me."

Bryson poses questions for which he seeks answers: "What did insects do before there were electric lights?" "How do aquarium fish get so much energy out of a few little flakes of food? And what are those flakes made out of, precisely? And how did anyone ever determine that that is what they want to eat?" "Is it actually possible that there are people who can eat I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and not believe it's not butter?" You get the idea. Bill Bryson brings cleverness to the table and gains access to a reader's mind and heart.


Approach is another means of surprising: designing your story in unexpected fashion. Carole Boston Weatherford's biography of jazz legend Billie Holiday does not develop chronologically. It blossoms in independent poems. Here is one about Holiday's childhood days titled "You Ain't Gonna Bother Me No More." To save space, I'll pass it along to you in continuing rather than separate lines.

"I could keep up with the boys shooting marbles and dice, but not catching bugs. Crawly things gave me the creeps, and all the boys knew it. Once, after a ballgame, I was sitting on the curb and a sore loser swung a rat by the tail right in my face. I begged him to stop, but he just grinned. Then that rat brushed my cheek. I grabbed a baseball bat and sent that boy to the hospital." Such can grab a reader.


Intensity made my list of surprise producers. Elie Wiesel's memoir Night, detailing memories of Auschwitz, where his mother and little sister had already died by furnace, includes the following passage. Here I'll ignore paragraphing to save space:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my father forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never." Intensity!

There is still more to surprise than the foregoing. I'll surprise you with it in the next issue.

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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