Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Unexpected

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I have a confession to make, specifically to Nicole, who commented on Monday's post, saying:
"I'm really really tired of estranged families at the center of the plot."
Bless me readers, for I have sinned. Both of my novels are about estranged families, and so is the one I'm writing now. I'm just relieved I haven't yet written any of the worn-out stories Ariel listed - though I do wonder what would happen if we took a young ex-Amish FBI agent, returned her to her home town in Pennsylvania to track down a nuclear detonator from her past...

What do you think?

This brings me, in a very roundabout way, to the magic juice of story-writing: The unexpected.

Recently my husband, George read Blood Work by Michael Connelly. He loved the book so much, he insisted we watch the movie together. Here's the premise:
Still recovering from a heart transplant, a retired FBI profiler returns to service when his own blood analysis offers clues to the identity of a serial killer.
About twenty minutes into the film, I said aloud, "I wonder if this is what happened..." But George only smiled, and said, "You'd think so, but Michael Connelly's way ahead of you."

So I kept watching, and twenty minutes later, I said, "I'm sure I was right. It's obvious. I'm surprised Clint Eastwood hasn't figured it out yet. He's been a cop for how long?"

"You wait and see," said George. "This writer is sooooooo good..."

Long before the movie was over, I even thought I knew the killer's name. The only thing that threw me off was that smirk on George's face that said I didn't know anything at all about whodunit.

But you know what? I knew everything. I was a hundred percent right from the very beginning.


What happened? Michael Connelly may have written the book, but Brian Helgeland wrote the screenplay, and for some reason, Helgeland took out all the tricky stuff and substituted in the obvious stuff.

A good writer does it the other way around. The unexpected is perhaps the least complicated, the most deceptively simple device in his toolbox.

Did Ariel nail your premise with "A young woman leaves the big city and returns to her home town to face the ghosts of her past?" What expectations will your reader have from such a story? Where will he start saying, "Oh, I know what happens next?" At that point, just give him something else, something unexpected, and find a way to make it work.

With a bit of imagination, you really can put a Philadelphia cop in an Amish community and let the bad guys meet him there. Call it The Witness and ask Harrison Ford to star in the movie. He might just say yes.

A nuclear device on an Amish farm might push things a little far. But then again...

Here's a book recommendation from Becky Miller to me to you: While I'd been aware of the trick of the unexpected before, John Truby does a great job of expanding on it in The Anatomy of Story, in the second chapter, titled Premise.

Play the game with me. What books or movies have you enjoyed that put a new twist on an old concept? I love to read what you have to say.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I liked a book called Emma and Me that dropped clues throughout the book, but smacked me in the face at the end.

I've enjoyed your blog so much I mentioned it as one of my top 8 today!
~ Wendy

Jan Cline said...

The movie "The Score" with Robert De Niro had me going the whole way and had a great ending. The unexpected can be a difficult thing to achieve - I appreciate this post.

Nicole said...

Ayy, ay, ay. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Yes, I know, He answers to me.

Katy Girl, I've heard nothing but amazing reports about both of your novels, and they shall be added to my TBR stack which is getting the best of me. So. That said, I did say fresh voice and so on can tip the scales in the sometimes worn out premises, did I not?

And as long as "the unexpected" provides a meaningful journey along the way without smiting the reader with an unbelievable twist at the end, it can be exhilarating and rewarding.

Dogwood by Chris Fabry is one of my all time favorite novels--but not because of the unexpected ending. In fact, to this day I'm still not sure if I liked the ending. But the writing was superb, so I forgave him. ;)

Please forgive me, Katy. Hopefully you all know I mean no harm.

Kathleen Popa said...

Thanks everybody for your recommendations. Now I have new books to read, new movies to watch.

Nicole, no offense was taken, no forgiveness needed.

And you're right about not wanting to smite the reader with an unbelievable twist. Probably best not to have the nuclear device removed from the Amish farmstead by an alien vampire. As I said, you have to make it work.

Jan, the unexpected need not be difficult. It's probably hardest within the mystery genre, where you have to make the killer someone the reader never suspects for perfectly believable reasons he just never thought of. Not only that, but you have to plant the clues in the book but make sure the reader misses them. Those poor mystery writers.

But the unexpected is all around you, and it's always the most interesting. I have an uncle who is a great big man in cowboy boots who cries at Disney movies. Wouldn't he make a great character?

In 1995, I heard on the news that an anonymous donor had mailed a million dollar winning Mcdonalds Monopoly game piece to St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis Tennesee. Wow, what a story! Who do you think would have done such a thing, and why?

The first answers to pop into your head were probably pretty predictable. So why not write down a few more answers, at least four or five, and pick the who and why your readers might least suspect - without resorting to alien vampires, please.

That's how it's done. And by the way, you probably never thought of the real who and why. Look it up on Wikipedia:

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I love what Nicolas Sparks did with "the Wedding". I can reread that book a million times and still the twist gets me. So great!

Patti Hill said...

Water for Elephants!!! I never saw that coming.

Anonymous said...

Kristen, yes! The Wedding was fabulous!!

Great comments, everyone. I always look forward to adding new books to my TBR list via all your suggestions.

Bonnie Grove said...

I gasped out loud at the end of Momento (movie). GASPED!
(I'm not a gasper).

Nicole; I have Dogwood on my TBR list.

Wendy: Emma and Me? Is it a must read? I like a good smack in the face at the end of a book if it's done right. If they don't bore me to death through the book for the sake of a good smack at the end.

Patti: I have Water for Elephants and I started it, but quickly got annoyed by the contrived dialogue. Obviously, I missed a very big point, eh? I'll give it another try.

I'm reading a book right now called The Gift of Asher Lev by Chiam Potok (Jewish author of The Chosen - he writes about life inside a specific Jewish sect) that I think will creep up on me in a surprising way. It's a meandering plot so well written I can't look away. So up close. Loving it

Kathleen Popa said...

Bonnie, Asher Lev is one of my favorites.

Let me add to the list The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. The whole book is unexpected, and the ending is brilliant!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

The Usual Suspects is one of my favorite movies because of the surprise ending. Brilliant. Never saw it coming even though I was given every clue to figure it out.

And Water for Elephants does have one of the most unexpected and satisfying endings I've ever read. (I hope the movie is good - should be out next year, I think)

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors. I read all his books back in the 80s. Loved Davita's Harp. Rick just read My Name is Asher Lev, and The Gift of Asher Lev.

The Book Thief is excellent. Read it twice last year.

I'm afraid I'm with you on Water for Elephants, Bonnie. I was put off by the first few chapters, so I put it down. I keep hearing so much about it, but haven't picked it up again.

Heather Marsten said...

A prayer for Owen Meany, not my usual book, but i was pulled into the book by the unexpected

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Okay, it's so called Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock. That was niggling at me all day.

I really enjoyed it. It was sad, but it held my attention (which isn't always the easiest thing to do).

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you again, everyone, for your suggestions. I love hanging out with people who love a good story.