Yesterday I was listening to my iPod while revising a story and suddenly a Christmas song started playing. It was completely unexpected because 1) I didn’t put any Christmas songs in the playlist, and 2) It’s been nearly 90 degrees all week and Christmas is the farthest holiday from my mind.
I didn’t think too much about how the Christmas song got in my playlist until I glanced back over my revision. And it hit me. The universe was trying to tell me something: My story is too predictable. It’s bland. It’s kind of boring. Nothing unexpected happens, no random Christmas songs in April. There aren’t any surprises. I don’t mean surprises like the main character is the son of his arch-nemesis or is dead or schizophrenic. I don’t mean a shocking O. Henry ending, either. But this story needs something unexpected: a technique, a phrase, an action that makes you grip the book tighter or forget to blink, breathe for a moment. Something that keeps you sitting there and thinking about it even after you’re finished reading.
I didn’t know where to start. I’m a very predictable person. I like plans and routine. Everyone says I’m the easiest person to buy gifts for because I’ve liked many of the same things since I was a child. How can I write something unexpected if I’m the definition of predictability?
I did what I always do when I fall in a writing trap: eat a piece of chocolate and read. I piled several short story collections beside me and skimmed through stories that have been most memorable. How did the author make the story exciting and unpredictable? Why do I remember a story I read only once years ago?
These are some techniques I found to try making my story unpredictable:
Change the POV. Most stories are told in first or third person singular. It’s most familiar to readers- and writers. Maybe writing in second person or in third person plural is the spice needed for that unexpected flavor. Examples: “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore and “Camp of Low Angels” by Silas Dent Zobal.
Withhold Information. Readers shouldn’t be underestimated. Is my story is telling too much and not leaving anything open for interpretation? Ambiguous dialogue, as long as actions give clues, keeps the ending open for a reader’s own conclusion. Example: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway.
Challenge Convention. Controversy gets readers thinking, and flipping a traditionally conservative event, theme, or symbol upside down and inside out might be what my story needs to keep readers interested. Example: “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter.
Background Check the Characters. My characters need shaking up. They need to step out of their comfort zone and do something crazy. I need to figure out why they’re acting like they are or why they want to act a certain way. What’s their story before this one starts? Example: “Through the Tunnel” by Doris Lessing.
Break the Rules. You know the quote about learning the rules properly so you know how to break them? Maybe it’s time to break the rules. Do something completely different. Forget proper grammar. Write in stream of consciousness. Or incomplete sentences. It might be all wrong, but it could also provide another direction to make the story more compelling. Example: Dream Lives of Butterflies by Jamie Wriston Colbert (It’s a short story collection. The author does not use quotation marks or italics to set off the dialogue.)
Last night I tried breaking the rules and challenging a conventional idea. It was so fun experimenting and taking a break from my usual revision strategies! Those two didn’t work for this story, but I’m playing around with the other three today. I’m thinking changing the point of view is probably what my story needs, so I’m trying that last.
I hope no one else is struggling with their revisions. If you are, I’m here if you want to commiserate. Happy writing and revising! :o)
"Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go." ~E. L. Doctorow
"Read, read, read. Read everything- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write." ~William Faulkner
Share with me!
What do you do to add unpredictability to your WIP? Do you have any favorite short stories or novels you re-read to help you out of a writing trap?