Saturday, December 4, 2010

Surprise me

I never thought I'd mention Harry Potter and The Karate Kid in the same post.

Of all the talk within the children's writing community about Harry Potter, there is one I remember the most. A speaker at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference (I think it was Bruce Coville) said the biggest draw of the series was that there was a surprise on every page. They were never just jelly beans, or portraits, or even bathrooms. In the world Rowling created, even the most mundane objects or activities were surprising.

The world was wondrous.

In a much smaller way, The Karate Kid remake surprised me. When I saw Mr. Han working on a car, I expected to hear"Wax on, wax off." I never did. There were the obligatory training montages, but one was punctuated with the young hero flexing and posing in front of his mirror. Nothing huge, but another small, funny, surprise.

(That the movie surprised me at all is incredible. This post is being written by someone who remembers trying to balance on one foot before delivering a brutal, match-ending kick. I also remember seeing half the playground trying to do the same thing during one second grade recess. We considered ourselves successful if we didn't fall down in the attempt.)

I knew what was going to happen in the remake. I knew all the plot points it needed to hit. Yet in many small ways, the movie didn't do what I thought it would- and so it kept my interest.

I'm in the middle of rewrites, and I keep coming back to the importance of surprising the reader. No conversation, description, or character should be just what the reader expects. That's easier said than done, but it forces me to dig a bit deeper into whatever I'm writing. It's also a way to measure the effectiveness of what I've just written. I feel that I can move on when something unexpected is revealed, even if it's a small something.

What about you? What books surprised you in big or small ways? How do you keep your own writing fresh?

And did you ever try that kick after watching the first Karate Kid?


Michelle said...

It was Bruce Coville who said that. I believe it was something like, the amount of cool stuff per page.

I'll need to think a bit more about the surprise thing.

Keely Hutton said...

I had the opportunity to spend a day with Bruce Coville when he visited my children's elementary school this November. Isn't his enthusiasm for writing and story-telling infectious? He's a terrific guy.

Sarah said...

He was amazing, Keely! I What a fun day that must have been.

Thanks, Michelle! It absolutely could have been cool stuff per page. I could have simply thought of it as surprising. (In my own mind, the most interesting things are the unexpected ones.)

Lisa said...

Oh yes, I remember that kick. I was a little in love with a boy named Spencer who coul dactually do it without falling down.

Being in the midst of revisions, I find it difficult to pinpoint what might be surprising to a reader, since I'm so close to the story. But that's what I have you Slushies for, right?

I love it when one of you tells me that something was surprising, and I think, "Really?" But then, I've seen it coming for chapters and chapters.

Tess said...

I never tried it, but I remember my brother and his friends threatening to "get me" with that pose.

hahaha...ah, the memories.

Sarah said...

Lisa, isn't it great to have folks who can give us that feedback? I don't know what I'd do without it. And it's the little surprises in your story, too, like the boxes the moneychangers had round their necks. (Hope I remember that correctly!) Nothing big, but an interesting, engaging detail that I wasn't expecting.

Tess, I tried that pose enough to know that I would never, ever get someone with it, unless they stood in front of me and stuck their chin out.... : ) But it was still fun to try.

The Proverbial Shopper said...

I wonder how surprise works in historical fiction???

Nora MacFarlane said...

How do I keep my writing fresh? I have a fabulous critique partner who knows all the right things to ask, and I read thought provoking posts written by reflective people like you. Posts like these always makes me look at my own work with a more critical eye. Thanks!