Saturday, May 22, 2010


A surprise may be an unanticipated discovery. Or not. It may also be an accidental revelation, or the result of a computation that equals an enhanced result. Surprise may be pleasant or not; it may be the advance guard of a reversal of fortune or the light at the end of the tunnel flickering, then going out.

Life is filled with surprises, but story has as much to do with surprise as transfat has to do with donuts; without surprise, story seems blah, unpromising, quotidian, much like real life. Surprise is the fuse that ignites, producing an explosion. The results of the explosion produce an emotional residue, often shock or amazement or fear. Surprise sometimes produces the shudder of apprehension, the realization of horror or terror. Surprise produces the ante needed to get into the poker game of love; it may be as complex as discovering you can't do without something or someone you thought you could get along quite nicely with out, thank you for asking.

Surprise in story arrives like an unbidden guest who thought the party was tonight, not tomorrow; it produces the tension and suspense of wondering what they--the characters--are going to do now, now that the surprise has arrived.

In some exquisite, final analysis, surprise must wait at the outer limits of plausibility, successful in its attempts to remain inconspicuous. One classic example of surprise in action at its most nuanced is to be found in Somerset Maugham's flash fiction, "The Appointment in Samarra."

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

You particularly cannot get away from surprise in your writing for a number of reasons so you may as well hunker down and get familiar with it. One not so pleasant surprise comes from rereading something you wrote a day or two earlier and left it in, thinking it was brilliant. Another surprise may come after someone has read a passage of yours you thought to be particularly poignant but which caused the reader to laugh outrageously. Yet another surprise may lurk when someone reads something of yours you were not quite satisfied with, then went on to tell you how moving and perfectly emblematic of a particular feeling it was.

Surprise is every joke you thought funny as a teenager; it is the discovery that someone in whom you had no romantic interest at all is smitten with you; it is being mistaken for the likes of a writer, say Norman Mailer or Margaret Atwood, in whom you can find no possible resemblance to your work or appearance; it is cruel, notional, considerate, loving, tender, inspirational; it is the awareness that you are not as dumb as you thought yourself to be nor as smart as you wished yourself to be. Surprise is a little kid on her first bicycle, waving thanks at you for waiting patiently for her to cross in front of you, it is your dog waiting up for you when you have been out late, it is a cat not throwing up a hairball on a clean shirt you have laid out to wear when you are out of the shower; it is the sudden sting of attraction that draws you to someone, it is the sense of being able to do better when you reread a draft of your new story, then going forth to do just that.

Surprise, you will come to realize, is as volatile as nitroglycerine; it must be handled cautiously, a trait you are not particularly noted for. From time to time in your life, you have come forth with laundry lists of things you believed you'd be better off without. One of these may turn out to be surprise, meaning for a moment or two in your own story arc, you have opted for the predictable and planned, wanting to foreswear surprise. A day or two later, you feel quirky and on edge, aware something is missing. Another day or so later, you realize it is surprise.

Trying to give up surprise is like trying to give up coffee. It was nothing to quit smoking, to give all your beloved smoking pipes to a private detective named Philip, to give away your stash of Cuban cigars, to wean yourself from unfiltered Camel cigarettes. It is not likely you will give up coffee, nor surprise. You could no more give up surprise than you could stop writing. There were times when you did not write, you mostly read or listened to music or brooded about the fact that writing had packed up and left home like some rebellious kid. But you put up Lost Writer posters on trees and phone poles. You offered rewards for the return of writing, and knew without having to be surprised about it that the way back was to read something dreadful in its awfulness.

You would think other persons, places, things, and books or stories or poems could surprise you but that you could not surprise yourself. This would be your one sure toe hold on sanity. But, surprise, you were wrong and the joke was on you, a condition that comes as no surprise at all; the joke is always on you.

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