Friday, May 27, 2011

The Delight of Surprise

by Scott Rhoades

It doesn't matter what genre you write, what age group you write for, whether you rhyme or swear or rely on pictures to tell most of your story. Whether people remember your work comes down to one thing: delight.

We've all read books that we really liked, or that had an artistry or depth or literariness that we enjoyed and appreciated, but that we didn't quite love. Likewise, we've read books that we know might not quite have the literary value of many of the books we enjoy reading and displaying on our shelves, but they've become instant favorites or guilty pleasures. A book sticks with you for many different reasons, but the books that make your eyes light up when they are mentioned have less to do with quality than they do with the sheer delight of reading them.

What creates this sense of delight varies from reader to reader, but I think most of are delighted by similar things, including:

  • Surprise
  • Use of language (see surprise)
  • Humor (see surprise)
  • Originality (see surprise)
I could make this list longer but, as you might guess, the one element that is sure to delight us is surprise. An unexpected turn of phrase, twist of plot, reaction of character or, really, an unexpected whatever triggers a pleasure reaction in our brains. It's why a unique combination of verbs and nouns brings more joy than a cliche, even if the cliche is perfect for a particular situation. It's why a writer like J.K. Rowling can delight us with an unusual combination of elements we've seen in books by Roald Dahl and other authors.

Think of two of my favorite authors, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. Both of these men were prolific authors whose works vary greatly in quality. Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he also wrote Tom Sawyer, Detective and The American Claimant. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but he also wrote Burning Bright and The Short Reign of Pippin IV. I mention the "also wrotes" not to put them down or to call them bad, but to make a point. Twain and Steinbeck fans like those other books, maybe even love them. Why? Because each of these writers, even when relatively off, delight their readers with the way they write. Even if the characters aren't his best or the story is not quite up to snuff, there's just something about the way our favorites write that makes us forgive, or even ignore, the shortcomings of their lesser works because we know we're going to find something delightful.

That's the kind of writer you want to be.

All of this came to mind today while I was driving home for lunch, with a Tom Lehrer CD in the player. People my age most likely know a few of Tom Lehrer's songs, thanks to the Dr. Demento radio show. Songs like "The Masochism Tango" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" have a delightfully twisted humor, a darkness that makes us laugh and remember the songs. I love that about his songs. But there are a lot of funny and dark comedy songwriters. Lehrer is pushed to the top by the kind of intelligence you'd expect from a mathematics professor at major universities, like Lehrer was.

But that's not what really delights me about Tom Lehrer. I'm a word nerd, and (as you may have gathered by now) I love surprises. Few, if any, songwriters can turn a great phrase or rhyme that surprises me as much as Tom Lehrer.

How many rhymes do you know for funeral? Check this out:

When you attend a funeral,
It is sad to think that sooner or
Later those you love will do the same for you.

It doesn't come out right on the page. You have to hear it to believe it. He does it over and over in his songs. And it's not only the rhymes. Check out the astounding list of -ity words in "When You Are Old And Gray." The song would be hilarious without it, but with that list, it becomes something special. Or check out the unexpected place that his tender love song "I Hold Your Hand In Mine" takes us.

Lehrer's songs are packed full of surprises, usually layers of them, in his rhymes, word choices, subject matter, and twists. And so, even the songs that nobody will ever consider classics delight me. I enjoy even the songs that are not among his best, because I know they'll surprise me, even after I've heard them several times. Not many writers can do that. Dr. Seuss can. Shel Silverstein can. And now you know (if you didn't already) that Tom Lehrer can.

We all want to delight our readers so they come back to our work again and again, so they know when they see something with our names on it they can't count on a good time. Look at your favorite writers and figure out what it is that makes them mean what they do to you, then personalize that and have some fun delighting yourself as you write.

Next time I post on this blog, I'll write about two particular genres that rely on surprise, two genres that many people might think of as near opposites, but that are really very similar. But if I told you now which two genres I mean, I'd spoil the surprise, so you'll just have to wait a week.


Julie Daines said...

Wow! Great post. I guess I love it so much because I'm surprised...

Actually, it is something I should probably spend more time thinking about. Sometimes I feel like my work is too predictable.

Not like rancid shark meat marinated in pee. That was definitely a surprise. And because you wrote such a surprising thing--I will never forget it. No matter how hard I try.

Scott said...

See? :)

Taffy said...

Or a boat made entirely of toenails and fingernails.
Good post, Scott!

Have you read Puddinhead Wilson by Mark Twain. Hilarious!

Julie Daines said...

I think the toenail boat was really the clincher. Between that and the shark meat, I'm traumatized for life. :)

Scott said...

Glad I left a lasting impression or two. :)

The only Twain novel I haven't read is The Gilded Age, and I'm determined to finally get to it this year. LOVE Puddinhead Wilson!