Is the ending of a story the only place where a writer can use the element of surprise?
Published: April 19, 2012
Q: Where can a writer surprise the reader? It seems this mostly happens in endings. What about other parts of a story? |
A: Great endings often do surprise in some way. In John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” I’m surprised that Ned finds his house dark and unoccupied after swimming home via the county’s pools. The opening casts Ned as a well-liked, successful family man. As his cross-county swim unfolds, it’s clear he’s experienced problems in his business and family life. Cheever telescopes time; it seems this story unfolds in an afternoon but there are suggestions that much more time has passed between the starting and ending point. Still, I don’t expect the abandoned house at the end, but I see where the story has prepared me for it.
The ending of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “A Temporary Matter” also surprises me. After a series of evenings in which a married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, tell each other increasingly intimate secrets, I don’t expect Shukumar to tell the one secret Shoba never wanted to know—the sex of their baby. But for Shukumar to do so is revealing.
The unexpected, in some form, is essential to a satisfying ending. Still, surprise has its place in other parts of the story, as well. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I’m surprised by how flustered the seemingly self-assured Gatsby appears when he finally comes face to face with his long-lost love, Daisy, at a tea arranged by Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick:
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom.
After an awkward exchange about how long it has been since they have seen each other, Nick takes his leave:
[Gatsby] followed me wildly into the kitchen, closed the door and whispered “Oh, God!” in a miserable way.
“What’s the matter?”
“This is a terrible mistake,” he said, shaking his head from side to side, “a terrible, terrible mistake.”
This insecurity is a new dimension to Gatsby’s personality and it reveals the unsettling intensity of his desire for Daisy. This moment takes place far from the end—about half way through the novel.
In Carson McCullers’ novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” Cousin Lymon shows up in town claiming Miss Amelia, a difficult, standoffish woman who runs a store, as kin. This is an unexpected moment in the plot, and Miss Amelia’s reaction is even more of a surprise—she takes him in. Cousin Lymon’s presence results in big changes, most of them a loosening of Miss Amelia’s stringent rules and a neutralizing of her dour attitude.
Whether a character reveals a new dimension to his personality or a discovery comes up unexpectedly, surprise can rejuvenate, increase tension, complicate the action, and delight.
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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
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.