Surprise Someone Today!

I don’t know how we arrived at the subject, but I recently told the second and third graders in my Sunday school class, “Videogames didn’t always exist.” Classic, open-mouthed expressions of shock followed. In their minds, videogames always existed just like Harry Potter! Right?

But I followed through with yet another shocker: “I played my first game of Pokémon on the GameBoy back in the ’90s.” They stared at me as if amazed I had lived so long. After all, they haven’t yet reached the double digits age-wise. They asked questions that showed how engaged they were. And it all started with a chance remark, one with the ability of a grappling hook to snag their attention and keep it.

Why were they so stimulated? Because of the amygdala—a storehouse of emotional reactions. Neuroscientists at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine examined the neurological effects of surprise, according to an article by Harald Franzen at Scientific America. “The brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones,” says Gregory Berns, one of the neuroscientists involved in the study.

I know what you’re thinking. Some surprises are unwelcome: audits; car repair expenses; people who show up at our homes unexpectedly when we’re in our bathrobes. Yet the brain is stimulated by surprises.

Consider how you can incorporate the element of surprise in your writing. Not purely for shock value—i.e., suddenly making your sweet main character utter something uncharacteristically vicious. But think of how you can make the element of surprise work for you—to engage your reader and keep him or her riveted to the page.

“The great writer . . . knows when and where to think up and spring surprises, those startling leaps of the imagination that characterize all of the very greatest writing,” says John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (7).

Think about the last book that surprised you in a good way. I’ll give you an example. In my graduate program, we had to analyze hundreds of books. That left me feeling a bit jaded about books. But Sharon, one of my classmates strongly suggested that I read Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, one of the 2013 Newbery Honor winners. I’m glad she did. Turnage surprised me at her first paragraph and keeps me engaged in the narrative through the voice of her main character, Moses (Mo) LoBeau.

As of the writing of this post, I’m still reading this book, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers. But I can tell you that every page is like a present I can’t wait to open.

Surprise your readers. Make your story a present they can’t wait to open.

Franzen, Harald. “Neuroscientists Learn Why Some People Like Surprises: Scientific American.” Neuroscientists Learn Why Some People Like Surprises: Scientific American. N.p., 16 April 2001. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1983, 1991. Print.

For another great article on the effects of surprise on the brain, go here:

4 thoughts on “Surprise Someone Today!

  1. Thanks for this reminder, Linda–great blog post. I think that surprise and unpredictable outcomes can only come from characters that are dimensional. Once we consider all the forces at work on real people and use them to help round out our characters, surprise–in some form– may be inevitable.

    I can’t wait to read Three Times Lucky!

    • The inevitability of surprise–I love that concept. Years ago, an acquisitions editor mentioned a good book always is a surprising thing. She’d read thousands of manuscripts each year, and like me was a little jaded. A fresh, well-written, engaging manuscript was a pleasant surprise. I hope you enjoy Three Times Lucky. It’s so delightful.

  2. Great, thought-provoking post, Linda. Inevitability of surprise: I love books that do this – make me catch my breath while at the same time I realize that yes, that’s how it had to be, there was no other way.

    • And that’s what Sheila Turnage does in such a gorgeous way in Three Times Lucky. These authors and their amazing debut books! Thanks for the recommendation!

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