Monday Writing Motivation: New, strange, unusual, previously unknown
Why do we read fiction? There’s a range of obvious answers – we love intimate encounters with strangers who pose no danger to our cosy view of the world (although books can change our lives!). We love stories in which characters take risks that we’d hesitate at taking ourselves. We love immersing ourselves in other worlds, relishing the challenges we might have met, and the rewards we might have earned had we walked in the shoes of our heroes.
And we delight in the twists and turns of the story, the surprises that lurk around every corner.
It’s no accident that long stories of fiction were dubbed “novels” back in the day when they first emerged. The Britannica defines a novel as “an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience, usually through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting.” But when writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries first started composing these works of fiction, they were to their readers “new, strange, unusual, previously unknown”.
They were, in short, a surprise. They were as unpredictable as life, which, unless it’s tamed by puritan excess or bureaucratic myopia, is for each of us a journey through unknown territory.
Now here’s an exercise for you. When next you read a novel, pause when you reach the inciting incident. You know, the event that triggers the story, the incident without which a story wouldn’t follow.
And ask yourself where you think the story will go. Will the sheriff save the town from the depredations of the great white shark? Who and what will stand in his way? Will Anna find happiness in the arms of Count Vronsky? And if not, why not?
This is what most readers do as a matter of course as they work their way through a story. And the writer gleefully engages with them in a game in which she tries to confound his expectations. Novelists are, unashamedly, great deceivers, enticing readers to anticipate certain outcomes – but then presenting them with surprising alternatives. Strong men break down and cry, weak men find their strength and stand up to tyranny.
But novels are, of course, infinitely varied in their scope and their purpose, so any generalisation about them can and should be challenged. There’s an army of characters who find themselves incapable of escaping their fate. But even in stories that seem tragically predetermined, any worthwhile author will seek to astonish his readers with the unpredictable.
I’m reading a novel at the moment called Palace of the Drowned, by Christine Mangan. It concerns a novelist who, struggling with the poor reception accorded her fourth book, and traumatised by a spell in a mental institution, gratefully accepts the offer of her best friend to stay in her Venetian palazzo. The year is 1966. This, you remember, is the year of Venice’s great flood – so you’re aware from the start that the inundation will play a role in the story.
No more spoilers, though. Suffice to say that early on I made a number of detailed predictions about what was likely to happen to the protagonist… And to my intense disappointment learned that in every important respect I was right on the money.
Having your readers correctly predict plot turns is a writer’s nightmare.
So it’s worth misleading your readers. But because they are clever, you have to be subtle. Because they expect the unexpected – that’s what novels are for, right? – you have to out-think them. You have to stay a move or two or three ahead of them.
You have, in short, to remember that novels should strive forever to live up to their original purpose: to be “new, strange, unusual, previously unknown”.