The element of surprise; letterheads and cover letters
Published: October 23, 2007
|I always thought surprise was important in stories, but my writing group says it doesn't work when characters do things that are "out of the blue." Who's right? |
Both you and your group members are right. On the one hand, you don't want to write a story that's predictable. If the reader knows Lisa is going to accept the necklace from her new boyfriend, even though she knows he stole it from her own sister, then what's the point of reading the story? But if Lisa is a generally honest person who is trying to forgive her sister for moving in with the man Lisa thought she would marry, that makes things more interesting. Will Lisa be able to forgive her one and only sibling, the person she's always turned to in times of need? Or will this betrayal be impossible to overcome? Will Lisa's new rogue boyfriend be just the revenge she needs? When Lisa is on the fence, so to speak, things are much more interesting and good writers know this.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the reader doesn't know if Gatsby will reclaim his true love, Daisy, until the very end of the novel. In Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," the very last line of the story reveals whether Claire will come to terms with the fact that her husband and his friends found a dead woman's body on a fishing trip and waited several days--until near the end of their trip--to report it. The characters waffle. Situations shift. And readers are eagerly flipping pages to find out what will happen because more than one option seems possible and plausible.
A pleasing moment of surprise is not, however, a moment that comes "out of the blue." Writers have to lay the groundwork. In Carver's "So Much Water So Close to Home," Claire is more fragile--the one in the relationship who seems to follow rather than lead. Yet, partway through the story, she slaps her husband, Stuart. But here's what came before: She is haunted by Stuart's choice to continue with his fishing trip, rather than walk five miles to the car on opening day to find a phone and report the body. She imagines being in the river, face down, like the young woman who was found. And she questions Stuart: "It isn't true ... . You didn't leave her there like that?" Stuart and Claire's relationship also has undercurrents of aggression. Stuart tries to bully her into dropping the subject. And earlier, before the slap, Claire sweeps her arm across the drain board in anger and frustration, crashing all the dishes to the floor. The slap is a surprise, but it's not "out of the blue." It is apparent that Claire is capable of such an action given what has come before.
So while surprise is an important element of fiction, your job is to make sure it follows as an organic outcropping of what came before. It all comes down to well-chosen details and the way they work together to show exactly what a character is capable of doing.
For queries and short-fiction submission cover letters, is it appropriate to use my professional letterhead that includes my (Ph.D.) degree?
Letterhead is a useful tool; it contains important contact information and communicates professionalism. But still, I suggest you skip it. Editors aren't all that interested in your accomplishments outside of your literary ones, and any experience relevant to your writing should be mentioned in the query or cover letter anyway. If you're pitching a book on psychological disorders and you have a terminal degree in that area, then you might use the letterhead. In fact, that's common practice when communicating with academic and professional journals or publishers within your field of expertise.
But for fiction or other creative writing submissions, stick to a format that doesn't take the attention away from who you are as a writer. If your professional experience is somehow important to the creative work, you can mention this in the body of the letter. Many authors make their own letterhead including name and contact information to use as a template when writing queries and cover letters. After all, that contact information is vital for those acceptances. But what's in the letter--or in the case of submissions, what accompanies the letter--is the true heart of a creative writing query or submission.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.