11 Sep 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 1-3: My Secret (Surprise)

One paragraph, 200 words, formatted according to MLA style (see your SF Writer text). Choose one specific incident that SHOWS the reader an unexpected detail about your life or personality.

So far, I've asked you to write paragraphs that demonstrate your ability to focus on one topic (Ex 1-0), to show with vivid, specific details (Ex 1-1), and to use evidence to support your main idea (Ex 1-2). 

The next step is to retain your ability to focus, show, and support, while developing a new strength -- the ability to surprise the reader.

As before, avoid coming right out and TELLING the reader that "My secret is..." or "Nobody knows this about me, but..." or "I try to hide this from my family and friends, but..."

I remember many years ago watching the opening episode of a new cop show. I have no idea what the name of the show was, but it seemed like a typical show, with a hard-edged police captain dealing with infighting among the officers, nosy reporters, greedy politicians, and of course the death and destruction he faces everywhere he looks. At the end of the episode, this gravel-voiced action hero strides into a wing of the hospital, where he is apparently a regular visitor because the nurses greet him by name.  He sits in a rocking chair, and the nurses hand him two tiny newborn babies, as the closing credits roll, he rocks them to sleep, singing a lullaby:
On the day that I was born, said my father said he
I've an elegant legacy waiting for ye.
'Tis a rhyme for your lips and a song for your heart
To sing it whenever the world falls apart.
The message I got from that scene was something like this: "This tough cop deals with death on a daily basis, and the only thing keeping him going is the time he spends cuddling these newborn babies, so that he can remind himself that the world isn't only full of death and destruction and the world falling apart -- that it is also full of fragile beauty, and that's why he puts on a badge and faces the tough streets every day."

The scene not only SHOWED a silent side of this guy's character (nobody else on the show seems to know about his volunteering), it was also unexpected (popular culture doesn't often depict men as nurturing, particularly in cop shows).

My wife's grandmother was a long-time fan of the World Wrestling Federation, and watched the show every week well into her 80s.  (I still don't know whether she thought it was all real, or whether she just pretended to believe it for my wife's sake.)

Why Practice Surprising the Reader?

Have you ever found yourself watching a TV commercial that's so gripping that, even though you know it's a commercial, you can't bear to turn away until at least you find out what the ad is supposed to be selling?  Or have you ever thought you were watching a trailer for a new movie, and it turns out to be a spoof?

Humans have a natural talent for putting details together to form patterns, and putting the patterns together to form meaning.  When those patterns seem to be falling in place in a particular way, your brain feels settled and relaxed; but when that pattern suddenly changes in an unexpected way, your brain pays closer attention.

Surprise requires misdirection. If you're describing a person who's about to walk into a surprise party, you might trick the reader into expecting a horror scene (by mentioning the cold mist, the moon peeking from behind clouds, muffled noises in the dark, etc.).

While misleading your reader and playing tricks with their expectations is not something you'll need to do in every writing assignment, I'm asking you to think carefully about how you prepare your reader to accept your conclusion.

By asking you to think about how to get your reader to expect one thing, but then delivering something completely different, I'm hoping you will get some practice developing the skills you'll need in order to introduce any complex conclusion -- even when your goal is simply to inform or persuade, not to surprise.

Your conclusion doesn't always have to be the complete shocker or a total reversal that the "Surprise" exercise asks for, but it should aim for a more gripping effect than "Therefore, this paper has given three reasons why coconuts will be more valuable than titanium in the aftermath of a thermonuclear war."


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