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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28 Responses

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  1. Such an interesting post, Janet!
    * While a fresh approach can be appealing, I’ve seen rather more of what the art historian Richard Hughes called “The Shock Of The New”, and blatant throwbacks to literary Mannerism.
    * The SF writer Arthur C. Clarke is, unfortunately, a good example. He could tell a cracking good story, but his attempts to provide freshness to the genre of steel-jawed galactic explorers included homosexuals and characters whose attributes included Olympic athleticism, scientific genius, and, oh, yes, the status of racial minorities. He also tried to inculcate readers with his vision of a society in which love was free, and apparently accurately valued.
    * Sad, really, because his earlier stories, particularly ‘Earthlight’, are well within the genre and have stood the test of storytelling time, even though the technical details are long outmoded.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, unfortunately, nowadays many authors seem to work hard to elicit a response of shock–or at least dismay–from readers. Even in titles, four-letter words proliferated in 2016. Sometimes this occurs because the author is bored writing within a genre’s confines so the author pushes the envelope. Other times the author pushes his view of social justice and covers his agenda with a thin veneer of story.
      Art tends to push envelopes. But sometimes the art is left behind, but the agenda isn’t.

      • Wow, Janet, that’s a keeper! “Sometime the art is left behind, but the agenda isn’t.”

      • Great point, Janet! As a lifelong reader of thrill fiction (Bobbsey Twins, anyone?), I have often wondered whether agents and editors at the Big 5 haven’t become bored as well. They want ‘bigger, better, more shocking.’ Amateur sleuths with very odd character tics that in no way match their path in life.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Margaret, I suspect some of the over-the-top TV series sort of inure editors and agents to what should be published. Many television programs are disturbingly grisly, with odd–and downright weird–characters. Then you have books like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which encourage editors to look for ever more “exotic” characters and plots.

  2. I’m a huge Laura Frantz fan. Her story, Love’s Reckoning, took an unusual turn for me toward the end. I thought I’d die in misery. I didn’t think my heart could take it. But it made me embrace the ending with a tight hug.
    *I’ve been tweaking one of my stories a tad bit, after talking more with another expert in the field, giving great reasons and logical reasons for my story not going the logical way. And I’m going to insert that word “logical” in the dialogue … it’ll always remind me of you, Janet. 🙂 One question … do you notice that when things don’t go the logical way, that people pipe up, nose in the air, and state with all their (lack of) authority: “That could never happen!” And how do you handle people like that?

    • “… And how do you handle people like that?”
      You say, “Oh, it happens. You just don’t believe.” Then watch the frowns that mask their faces.
      I have had about two of these incidents.

    • Janet Grant says:

      We don’t want to write what is illogical, but we do want to write about a character who responds in a way true to who he or she is–we’ve built those qualities into the character along the way–so that the reader doesn’t think, “That would never happen.” Instead the reader thinks, “I would never do that, but I understand why the character did it.” So says the “logical” Janet!

    • I actually tossed my tablet onto my bed in That Part!!!

  3. Before I became a reader, I took displeasure in books like a vegetarian is irritated with pork. On starting to read, I put so much focus – partly to prove to mum that I knew as much as authors do – that I was not easily thrown off. Had it smooth for a while…
    Ted Dekker taught me otherwise, then Grace by Max Lucado (I reached a chapter and thought, “you too, sir?”), a bit of Frank Peretti, James Scott Bell…
    I read Sidney Sheldon’s ‘Master of the game’s and was thrown off more than I cared to count.
    A book by James Patterson. I had this figured until the last page, then he gave the jab.
    I’m on Left Behind series now and I’ve had a few many surprises.
    And I could speak of a road less traveled with all grace, for I am on one at this perfect second. The bus is determined to throw me off my seat, phone first. Ouch. I should go.

  4. It is very difficult to take me by surprise. But one book did just that. So much so that I audibly gasped and had to pause just to soak it in. The Mark of the King by Jocelyn Green. I cannot tell you the moment because it would ruin it for those of you yet to read the book. But the way she presented the gospel was the most beautiful and literally breath taking I’ve ever read.
    *Having said that, I always wonder about my own work and if the unexpected comes across well or simply contrived for the sake of being different.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    A thought-provoking post, Janet. I’d have to say Roseanna White’s A Stray Drop of Blood is my best example. After passing through a series of relationship crises, an unexpected turn of events flips one main character out and transforms a minor character into major. It’s perfectly logical the way it happens, and it’s masterfully handled.
    *I enjoy writing plots myself where someone who seems like a minor character in the beginning flips into major because of a twist in the plot. This works because I’m writing historicals with multiple POV characters and a plotline separate from the romantic part, so for a character to flip from minor to major is organic to the plot. I think it would be much harder if I was writing in a genre, like straight romance, that was more or less limited to 1 or 2 POVs. I’d have to find something surprising that was more event-based than character-based.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carol, thanks for the example of Roseanna’s flipping major/minor characters. That’s a great twist to give to a story.
      You’re thinking about when you can flip characters’ positions makes complete sense. And, yes, for some genres, the surprise must come from events or characters’ responses to events.

  6. Janet, this post has me thinking about my story. As I get ready to rewrite it, I’m thinking through each scene’s ending and seeing if there is an unexpected way to take the story.
    *Rachel Hauck’s and Sara Evans’ book, Softly and Tenderly (book two in their series), has some very unexpected things happening, and some surprising character reactions. It kept me reading to find out what would happen next.

  7. Janet, this is such an engaging discussion! Thanks so much for taking the time to examine this issue.
    * I would like to ask – does the effort to take a fresh approach increase the chances of dating one’s work?
    * An example might be Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as being written in dynamic opposition to earlier military fiction, such as Wouk’s ‘The Caine Mutiny’ and Hersey’s ‘The War Lover’. The ethos are altered into satire, but that approach seems to be its undoing, for it’s unmistakably a literary vehicle of the 1960s; satire is nothing if not colloquial, and leaves ‘Catch-22’ with a leaden tread.
    * I’d love to hear thoughts on this. I’m no expert, and could be joyously heading for a metaphorical cliff.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, I would say humor and satire are elements that can quickly seem dated–or even unintelligible to future readers. But elements that naturally come from either a story’s events or characters’ traits withstand the passage of time much more effectively.

  8. William Cowie says:

    Real life being turned into a story: Henry Ford, on his second company, fails again to create a normal business. The frustrated investors, fixing to wind up the business, turn to a strong Christian to appraise the machinery. He puts two things on the desk: the appraisal and an engine he designed. Rather than liquidate, why not replace Ford’s flawed engine with this one? They did. With Ford gone, what to rename the company? He named the company after not himself but the founder of Detroit: Cadillac.

  9. Jerusha Agen says:

    I love this idea, Janet, of doing the unexpected to make a story unique. Sarah Ladd does this very well in her Regency novels–I’ll think as I’m reading, “Oh, now she’s going to do…” but then she surprises me by going a different direction. I’m so used to reading plots that I can predict, and I often find that frustrating when I can see they’re about to employ a device I don’t like, but I love Ladd’s writing because she picks the road less traveled, and it’s always a delight. Thanks for this reminder to do the same in my own writing!

  10. As Shelli stated, Laura Frantz’s Love’s Reckoning tossed me for a serious loop.
    But oh my, it was soooo well done!!
    And yes, I had to rest for a couple of days between that part and the rest of the book.
    A fresh direction for my current work? Well, the MC in the 2nd of my series is a Navajo warrior in hiding who surprises the object of his befuddled awakening because he speaks with a rather dignified English accent on the frontier of Arizona in 1894. He’s a bit of a renaissance man, but that isn’t the fancy pants Anglo education or the ability to fight to the death that makes him a hero in anyone’s eyes, it’s the ability to take someone broken and go inside their stillness with them, and then quietly lead them back out into wholeness.
    A lot of battles are fought in total silence with just the night sky to ponder.

  11. David Todd says:

    I don’t know if this qualifies, but I killed my POV character midway through my just-finished novel, leaving another character to carry on. An unusual way to pass the torch in a series. This was the second book for him to be the POV character, so it was hard to see him go. I’m not sure how readers will deal with it. I’m sure they will expect him to recover from his injuries, so when he doesn’t…. My one beta reader so far didn’t see any problem with it. It’s now with a second beta.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Not all my characters survive to the final page, David. Some of them “deserve to die;” others don’t. Some of them look like they’re going to die, but are spared/saved by the end. Some of the minor characters leave you wondering, and some of those will return as majors in later volumes in the series. My betas have said they like that. Hope my readers will!

  12. Kyle wright says:

    Well said.

  13. This is spot on. I’m always disappointed in the books in which you can easily figure out where the plot is going. It’s the twists and turns that keep things exciting.