Surprise your reader
by Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial
A great novel usually includes some element of surprise. The writer draws the reader along a path with setting and characters, and then suddenly an unexpected issue arises, or a character behaves in a way that surprises the reader. This element of surprise enhances the story and keeps the reader going – wanting to discover more surprises along the way. After all, if a novel was entirely predictable, why would you keep reading to the end?
While writing magazine or newspaper articles is different than novels, you can still employ the technique of surprise to keep your reader engaged.
Recently I was working on a discipleship story that involved a man who was diligent about sharing the Good News of Jesus with people he came into contact every day. He encouraged and discipled people in person, and he used Facebook and WhatsApp for friends who lived in other countries. He had a zeal for God and for helping people understand God’s Word. Of course, all those aspects of his life made for a good discipleship story.
What was remarkable about this man was that he did all this as a 90-year-old living in an assisted living facility!
In forming the story, rather than starting with who he was, I started with his use of technology to reach out, share the Good News, and disciple people. I waited until the 3rd paragraph (of a short 6 paragraph story) to mention that he was 90 years old.
The reader was probably expecting to meet a much younger person in the story and was surprised to learn that this person was older, and that he embraced technology. This small element of surprise set the story apart and made it memorable. And of course, his example caused the reader to reflect on their own commitment to lifelong discipleship.
Recently, I saw another example of the element of surprise in a human-interest feature story in the Wall Street Journal. The writer described a grocery store worker and her daily routine. After so many months of the pandemic, she took pride in her work, showing up to each shift so people could have the groceries they needed. Her after-work routine included coming home, changing her clothes, and showering in the basement, to keep potential germs away from her husband. The writer went on to introduce us to the grocery store worker’s husband.
Then, the writer continued, “Now, months later, Ms. B. has a new after-work routine. She walks to her fireplace mantel, lights a candle, and talks to the gold urn that holds her husband’s ashes.” (Wall Street Journal, 2/2/2021, page 1)
Yikes – talk about surprise! I didn’t know the article would be about her husband dying from coronavirus! Suddenly as a reader, I am paying attention, emotionally engaged, and want to know more about this woman and her husband. And the author didn’t just come out and say that the husband died, she wove it into the story, talking about his ashes.
The article continued telling more about how her husband got sick, despite her precautions. Then the story was broadened to include workers in other essential industries. As a reader I was hooked, I cared about these workers and wanted to read their stories. The surprise was gut-wrenching, but effective.
In your next story, consider which element is most interesting, and most surprising. How can you weave the story in a way that engages the reader and makes them want to know more? Especially if they say, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!”