Fresh Approach: How to Delight and Surprise Your Reader

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

One question I’m often asked is whether I see the same ol’  ideas in queries.

Indeed I do.

That begs the question: What can a writer do to be sure the idea he or she is passionate about is fresh and not a rehash of what keeps cropping up in my query garden?tulips-15155_1280

I recall a production I saw several years ago on PBS’s “Masterpiece Classic” that’s instructive in answering the question. Entitled “Small Island,” the drama recounted the lives of Jamaicans who were sent to Great Britain during WWII. They then chose to stay in London at the end of the war despite the prejudice they encountered because of their skin color.

Jamaican Michael had a brief affair with Londoner Queenie during the war, and she became pregnant. He was missing in action after the war. What will she do when her starched-collar husband returns from the war and Queenie delivers a black baby?

Several Jamaicans are boarding at Queenie’s house, including Hortense. Hortense loved Michael but married Gilbert because he would take her to London with him from Jamaica. The couple had just met the afternoon Hortense offered to pay his passage to London on the condition he marry her. All this occurs in the first episode.

What do you think happens in episode two? I had envisioned that Michael, who seemed always to stir up trouble, would return to London. He would discover Queenie had had his baby, and that Hortense, now married but not in love with her steadfast Gilbert, was a boarder at Queenie’s house. Sparks would fly!

Fresh Approach

But the writer took the story in a different direction. Michael may have set much in motion in episode one, but the significant mover of the story turns out to be Queenie. In episode two we watch how she responds to her husband, her boarders, and her clearly black baby. The author took the road less traveled and delivered a fresh story. The viewer couldn’t guess what would happen next–which is a good thing!

Breaking out of the Pack

What does that have to do with your writing? If you want to break out of the pack, think about the logical, expected direction for your fiction or nonfiction to take–and then take the reader elsewhere. Rather than having the character who is so afraid of going to war turn into a quivering mass at the bottom of a foxhole, have him discover he revels in killing. Rather than structuring your nonfiction book in a linear way; organize it by topic or theme. The goal is to surprise yet delight your reader.

I recall a writing instructor portray a scene for his students to write about. A young prince’s recently-deceased father has made a requirement for the prince to receive his crown. He may not have sex for five years.

The instructor then gave the class the assignment of writing the prince’s story. The students returned with their short stories. All of them depicted the prince facing his physical desires and ensuing temptations with much agonizing. But the instructor pointed out how much more interesting it would be to take a fresh approach. What if the prince so reveled in his abstinence that it became a point of pride? So much so that he doesn’t marry or produce progeny–a very important job for any king. Suddenly the prince’s plight becomes very different. The ways a writer would explore the prince’s psyche would take quite a turn. The resulting story would likely be more interesting and, when one thinks about it, more layered because it would plumb a different sort of depth in the human condition.

Now, tell us about a book that delightfully surprised you. Or tell how you found a fresh direction for your current work.

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Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

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Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

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Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

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