Earlier this month, my kids had their spring break from school, and since my husband didn’t have vacation days to spare, they ended up with lots of mom time. Here are four real things that happened that week:
- We hosted a smaller, socially distanced version of our annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt in our wooded yard, and the kids and their friends were all SO glad to be back to it after last year’s was cancelled during the initial covid lockdown.
- We road tripped to visit their newly vaccinated grandparents in Pittsburgh, the first time we’ve been able to see them safely since July.
- I received my second covid vaccine—a moment of hope and relief.
- My 9-year-old fell out of a tree and broke his wrist.
In the weeks since, I’ve chatted about all of these things on the sidelines of their soccer games and on neighborhood walks. Guess which one people perk right up and ask a dozen follow-up questions about?
If you guessed #4, you’re right. How did he fall? Did we see it happen? How bad did it hurt? How did we guess it was fractured? Where did we take him? How long will he have to deal?
Because as sweet as it is to hug grandparents at last and see kids smile over holiday traditions, it’s always the unexpected thing that captures our interest and makes us want to know more.
That’s a storytelling lesson, for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.
Even if your story is primarily meant to be as moving as a long-awaited family reunion or as nostalgic as a coming-of-age tale, readers crave a dose of the unexpected. It keeps them engaged, wakes up their attention and their curiosity.
Here are 5 quick ways to shake things up with an element of the unexpected.
Break something that was working perfectly fine.
A wrist. A window. A car engine. A promise. A heart. We expect these things to work as designed and when they don’t, our characters—and readers—are thrown for a loop.
Show someone we didn’t expect to see.
An ex. A relative we’ve been longing to see. A relative we’ve been glad not to see. A celebrity. The old lady who rear-ended your car last year. Any blast from the past—or even the future. Think of all those inopportune encounters with people you hadn’t planned to meet just yet. The CEO you’re supposed to be interviewing with next week. The new girl next door you hoped to impress. The contractors who messed up their schedule (or yours) and showed up a day early.
Turn to Mother Nature.
Is there anything more unpredictable? Rain on your wedding day might not really be unlucky, but so many plans are at the mercy of the weather and other elements. And it’s easy to suspend our disbelief, because anomalies happen: Snow in April. Heat waves at Christmas. Hurricanes pushing hundreds of miles inland. Poison ivy. Bats in the fireplace. Bed bugs at the hotel. Poisonous berries mistaken for something edible.
Lose something—or find it.
Hidden treasure comes in many forms; the lost and found is full of stories waiting to be told. Think of the havoc wrecked when the key is missing from its usual hiding place. And the joy when the lost dog turns up after all.
Add a pleasant surprise.
Sometimes something good happening is the biggest surprise. You won a contest! A kind Samaritan paid for the gifts your character had on layaway. No one really forgot your birthday.
And who doesn’t love when yesterday’s crisis becomes today’s blessing in disguise?
What are some of your favorite tricks for shaking up a scene? Join the discussion on Facebook.