By Darvell Hunt
I hate clichés like “Expect the unexpected.” What does that even mean? If it’s really unexpected, how can you expect it?
I imagine this phrase was considered clever at one point. The contradiction is probably what makes it so popular. It's ironic. And moronic. I suggest that we get rid of the cliché phrase and replace it with what we really mean.
How about this: expect surprises. I like that better. Simple and to the point.
David Copperfield, the famous magician, was full of surprises in his show near the University of Utah last Saturday night. My Dad bought my boys and me tickets for the show. I’m sure he would have enjoyed the show, but he did “the unexpected” and performed a bit of a disappearing act himself shortly after he bought the tickets. His death came as a surprise to all of us.
As a writer, it can be difficult to create a good balance between expected surprises and confusing plot twists. A good story has an unpredictable plot, but must make sense afterwards. That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially when you hope to create as large a target audience as possible.
I’m currently reading book #3 in the Twilight series. I’m finding the writing much better in quality than in the first two books, but, to my satisfaction, the storytelling is also better. Even so, though it has a few unexpected surprises, I have anticipated every major plot twist so far, at least a chapter in advance, and I’m almost done with the book.
On the other hand, last Friday night, my wife rented the latest James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. I don’t know if I’m getting too old to enjoy 007 movies, but halfway through the film, I still had no idea what the movie was about—except that I recognized the familiar speeding car chases and rooftop footraces. There were so many unanticipated surprises that I no longer had any interest in what was going to happen next. The scenes just seemed so random. Whatever happened to the good ol’ days of James Bond?
Unexpected is one thing, but incomprehensible is another. Sheesh.
Anyhow, my dad dying between purchasing tickets for the magic show and the date of the performance is a good example of an unexpected surprise. I never considered it might happen, and even though the experience was jarring, that’s the way life works. People die unexpectedly. The inevitability of death makes it believable when it happens, no matter how surprising the timing ends up being.
Consider the following series of unexpected events involving a death:
Your neighbor’s cat jumps off your house and onto your windshield as you start to pull from your garage, startling you and causing you to slam your foot on the gas pedal into reverse. Much to your horror, your reverse movement causes you to run over your 80-year-old neighbor and the dog she’s walking on the sidewalk behind your car. Since you know that cats hate dogs, you can’t help yourself from believing that the neighbor’s cat conspired with you (without your permission!) to kill the neighbor’s dog.
Now, would this event come as a surprise to you? Certainly. But, bizarre as it is, is it believable? I wrote this little fiction piece assuming it was beyond belief, but when I submitted it our blogging staff here at LDS Writers Blogck for critiquing, many of my co-bloggers asked me if it really happened (minus the part about believing the cat killed the dog).
So my attempt at stretching the truth beyond belief apparently was unsuccessful, which leads me back to James Bond and Twilight. How do you know if your story is predictable or too complex such that the reader will not understand it?
To answer this question, I would like to use another cliché penned by Justice Potter Stewart, regarding pornography, of all things. The matter of obscenity was before the Supreme Court in 1964, and Justice Stewart said that he could not specifically define what was obscene, but he said, “I know it when I see it.”
Creating the balance between predictability and believability is, in itself, a magic trick that many of us do not fully understand. On Saturday night, David Copperfield made a dozen members of the audience disappear before our eyes while they sat in chairs on a platform suspended above the stage. I don’t know how he did it, but it was certainly an amazing performance. Unexpected? Sure. But believable?
Well, I did see it happen right before my eyes. To use another used-too-often cliché, seeing is believing.