The Element of Surprise

Probably one of the hardest aspects of writing is surprising your main character.  What I mean by this is tossing at them the tangential elements of life that affect all of us, every single day, in both large and small matters.  The large ones are actually easier for an author to build in, I think, because they are usually pieces of the story–plot points and conflicts and barriers to what the character wants to do.  The smaller ones are harder for an author to build in. Those would be things like…unexpected responses in a conversation. The tangential response is why humans love talking to each other…we never quite know what is going to be said.  We don’t get to decide what topics are included in a conversation and what aren’t; in conversation with another person we are constantly reacting to what they are saying and thinking. We can’t predict it. We can only respond in the moment, after they have responded to us. Conversation is inseparable action and reaction, simultaneous comprehension and creation.

That image that comes to my mind is of a billiard ball.  It has its own momentum, and it’s happy to keep travelling on that path (or staying at rest) but then some other ball on its own path with its own momentum bangs into it, and both of them leave the encounter on different paths than they had been on before.

I illustrated it:

This is a pretty simplistic notion, yes? This idea that, well, duh, life never goes according to plan but is always informed by these events that we have no control over and the behavior of other people which by necessity is always on some level irrational to us simply because someone else’s behavior is never quite exactly what our own would be.  Except…I hadn’t really thought of writing in those terms explicitly before. When I come up with a story, there are always elements that the character can’t see coming, because that’s life, and because those sudden changes are part of the story, and  it was fine.

But the other day I was trying to write a conversation. I was struggling with it, which is rare for me, because normally conversation is the one element I don’t struggle with.  The difference this time was that I wasn’t writing a conversation I could hear in my head between the characters; I was composing a conversation because the scene wasn’t over, the inspired conversation was in place already, I just had to take the characters to it. And the words would not come. I could literally think of nothing for either one of them to say in response to the point the conversation had just come to.

That’s when I realized: real conversations work because no one ever quite knows what the person they are talking to will say next. It’s so much easier to have something to say when all you have to do is respond to someone else’s prompt, even something inane that you later feel stupid for saying (versus the witty thing you think of after the fact) than it is to try and create both character’s reactions. If I can’t think of anything to say, neither can any of my characters, and that is patently different from the way conversation works in real life. There is a freedom in being able to just react to someone else’s creativity, and a danger of not having realistic conversations if your characters don’t experience the conversational blindsiding we are treated to basically every time we interact with another human being.

So in the end my solution was to just let my hero blindside the heroine and jump into the meat of the conversation without any further segue. In the context that actually felt more true to life.

But this existential epiphany adds yet another wrinkle to the way I examine scenes for flaws and missed opportunities.

Any of my fellow writers struggle with this, or have a great solution for it?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Element of Surprise

  1. The only thing I can add is that men have a different pattern to their speech than women. They talk in fragmented sentences, while a woman will speak in longer, more complex sentences. With that in mind – a man can shift the conversation with a few words – and they tend to do that in real life, too.

    • ha, ha, my husband is a master at the sudden change of subject.

      interesting point about men and women gravitating to different speech patterns in general. i will be secretly analyzing everyone at work this week lol

  2. “Conversational blindsiding”. Excellent. And so very right, because otherwise the conversation sounds too scripted and even info-dumpy. The natural cadence of conversation does not sound like a bad B-movie script and neither should your dialog.

    One character shooting a look at another that begs the question “did you just grow six heads?” is so much more interesting than saying it.

    • oh, goodness, that is bringing to mind all the really terrible movies I’ve seen in terms of dialogue. the info dump lines are the worst!

      wtf looks are priceless. too bad regency slang doesn’t have that shorthand. barmy might work….

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