Fitting Surprise

Poems turn in a variety of ways, and the effects they create can be just as various.  Some turns are drastic; some are subtle.  Some draw clear conclusions; some shock.  There is no necessarily right or wrong way to turn–it all depends on what the poet wants to do with the turn.

That said, there is a growing conversation valorizing a specific quality of turn: the turn that both fits the poem and yet surprises, does something unexpected.  Such fitting and surprising turns are rare, and, so, rightfully prized.

This page contains a constantly-evolving collection of key remarks on fitting surprise–in poetry, fiction, art, and music.  Many of the following comments speak directly to fitting surprise as a quality of a text’s structural development; others speak more broadly about fitting surprise.

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…I think that every fine poem also contains something unanswered, strange, unaccountable.  The idea is to try and hold that strangeness in a web of near-familiarity or story.

–Dick Allen, in “Allen on Form Poetry and Natural Speech Patterns,” in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan Van Cleave (New York: Longman, 2003), p. 18.

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When I was a teenager, I was given an anthology and the poets I loved most were William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson.  I was drawn to poems that seemed as if they were going to vanish or explode–in other words, to extremes, to radical poetries.  But how do we define “radical”?  Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of implication can reach and still seem apt.  But so much rides, as always, on that word “seems.” (24)

–Rae Armantrout, “Cheshire Poetics,” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002.  24-6.  Also available here.

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A good story may tease, as long as this activity is foreplay and not used as an end in itself.  If there’s a promise held out, it must be honored.  Whatever is hidden behind the curtain must be revealed at last, and it must be at one and the same time completely unexpected and inevitable.  It’s in this last respect that the story (as distinct from the novel) comes closest to resembling two of its oral predecessors, the riddle and the joke.  Both, or all three, require the same mystifying buildup, the same surprising twist, the same impeccable sense of timing.  If we guess the riddle at once, or if we can’t guess it because the answer makes no sense–if we see the joke coming, or if the point is lost because the teller gets it muddled–there is failure.  Stories can fail in the same way. (1425)

–Margaret Atwood, “Reading Blind,” the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1989.  Reprinted in Ann Charters’s The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), pp. 1422-26.

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I like the part in the Poetics where Aristotle explains how the best Tragic effects depend on the combination of the Inevitable and the Unexpected. I guess that’s how I try to write: I want to surprise myself, without shirking a sense of consequence from one line or one sentence to the next.

–Suzanne Buffam, in her poetic statement in The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi (Chicago: Cracked Slab, 2007): 19.

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The best first lines leave many possibilities open while providing a frame, a voice, a telling detail to suggest a direction for the next line.  And to write a good follow-up takes more than merely an ear for the absurd.  The most memorable second lines surprise yet seem to have been anticipated all along when the first lines are read in retrospect…

–Isaac Cates and Chad Davidson, “Ouija, Canoe, Haiku: A Collaborative Inquiry into Collaborative Poetry,” The Writer’s Chronicle 39.3 (Dec 2006): 80-84.

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I think every writer takes his or her own experience and tries to get enough distance from it that it becomes material, and then you can shape that material.  Such material, which may itself not be intrinsically interesting, like my life, which is similar to so may other people’s lives, hopefully, when put under pressure (again, that’s what I think poetry is, is language under pressure) then I think it takes on qualities which I hope readers will find attractive.  There’s certainly one thing I’ve tried, I don’t get to decide if I’ve been successful or not, but one thing I’ve tried to do here, which is another thing I take from the sonnet, is a tradition of wit.  I take wit to mean more than cleverness, but to go back to the idea of the conceit, the idea one is able to take unlike things and juxtapose them in such a way that they seem startling and true.

–Joshua Corey, on his collection of sonnets, Severance Songs.  This quote can be found on page 13 of the reader’s companion to Severance Songs. 

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While there is debate over the guidelines for judging creativity, two things remain: novelty and appropriateness. These two things may be viewed in the product, the tools, the people, the motivation, and/or the processes, but these are the two necessary ingredients.

Johanna E. Dickhut, “A Brief Review of Creativity”

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Any juxtaposition may be startling.  Narrative collage is a cheap source of power.  An onion ring in a coffin!  Paul of Tarsus and Shelly Hack!  We can do this all day.  But in the juxtapostion of images, as in other juxtapositions, there is true and false, says Magritte.  Magritte says we know birds in a cage.  The image gets more interesting if we have, instead of a bird, a fish in the cage, or a shoe in the cage; “but though these images are strange they are unhappily accidental, arbitrary.  It is possible to obtain a new image which will stand up to examination through having something final, something right about it: it’s the image showing an egg in the cage.”

–Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 28-9.

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Not everything can be described, nor need be.  The choice of what to evoke, to make any scene seem REAL  to the reader, is a crucial one.  It might be just those few elements that create both familiarity (what would make, say, a beach feel like a beach?) and surprise (what would rescue the scene from the generic, providing the particular evidence of specificity?). (116)

–Mark Doty, in The Art of Description

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Having read this poem hundreds of times, I remain startled by that final gesture. I feel something has taken place that I am and am not prepared for.

–Mark Doty, in “On ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo'”

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Drift and counterdrift seem central to the way many of my poems behave.  It’s also the way my mind works.  I can hardly make a statement without immediately thinking of its opposite.  At their best, my poems enact and orchestrate mixed feelings and contrary ideas.   So when “Desire,” for example, found its counterdrift (“I walked the streets desireless”), it was on its way to discovering its ending, which of course was not available to me before the poem began.  That small clarification (“the body…never learns”) was, when I wrote it, the happiest of compositional moments: when we arrive at what we didn’t know we knew, and it seems inevitable. (95)

–Stephen Dunn, in “‘Artful Talk’: Dunn on Drift and Counterdrift” (in Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes, edited by Ryan Van Cleave (New York: Longman, 2003), pp. 95-7.)

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If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gillman et al., 16 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960 -1982): 7.90.

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The most difficult part of writing, I think, is contriving a way to be open to surprise.  Not surprise in general, of course: that’s merely another kind of sameness–but the right surprise: the realignment of attention or the rip in consciousness that will advance the argument or the meditation.

Linda Gregerson, at the How a Poem Happens blog

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I never intend the juxtapositions in my poems to be baffling or resistant to meaning–I’m a great believer in poetic “yield,” the pleasure of discovery when concordance or sympathy can be found beneath apparent disjunction–but plotted “discoveries” are ghastly.

–Linda Gregerson, in “I Set Out to See if I Could Breathe on my Own: An Interview with Linda Gregerson,” by Brian Brodeur (in The Writer’s Chronicle 46.3 (Dec 2013), pp. 16-22.

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The primary poetic technique of the haiku is the placing of two or three images side by side without intepretation….A space is created between the images in which the reader’s emotions or understanding can lodge and grow.  How these images relate to one another is a matter of some delicacy.  The relationship cannot be too obvious or the poem will be trite, but if it is too distant the association of images will appear forced or arbitrary….

[William J.] Higginson has called the interaction between two images the “heart of haiku.”  Others have likened the space between the images to the gaps in a spark plug: if the space is too small, the charge leaks out.  If it is too wide, there is no spark.  When the gap is just right, the result can be electrifying….

Good haiku achieve what [Robert] Spiess terms “the serene fusion of disparate elements.”

–Lee Gurga, in Haiku: A Poet’s Guide (Lincoln, IL: Modern Haiku Press, 2003), pp. 38-42.

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“What ‘purely aesthetic’ qualities can we distinguish in such theorems as Euclid’s and Pythagoras’s?  I will not risk more than a few disjointed remarks. In both theorems (and in the theorems, of course, I include the proofs) there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy. The arguments take so odd and surprising a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching results; but there is no escape from the conclusions.  There are no complications of detail – one line of attack is enough in each case; and this is true too of the proofs of many much more difficult theorems, the full appreciation of which demands quite a high degree of technical proficiency.  We do not want many ‘variations’ in the proof of a mathematical theorem: ‘enumeration of cases,’ indeed, is one of the duller forms of mathematical argument.  A mathematical proof should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation, not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way.”

–G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology, chapter 18.

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The adding of haiku to haibun prose is akin to the experience of linking in the communal poetry called renku.  I’ve always enjoyed writing renku, a process that requires one to come up with verses that move away with respect to each preceding verse, but still connect in mood, tone, image, theme.  Renku writers refer to this process as link and shift.  If the haiku in a haibun work well, they both anchor the piece and let it go.  They simultaneously frame and break the frame, allowing the content to spiral outward in ripples of association.

–Penny Harter, “Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Web,” in Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen (Austin, TX: Dos Gatos Press, 2011), p. 183.

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Nevertheless there is something Wildean in the typical Brodsky flourish, a cultivation of the unforeseen in order to disclose the undeniable, an embrace of positions that would have life live up to the demands of art and not vice versa. He has defined the usual reason why a writer writes as being ”to give or to get a boost from the language,” reminding us thereby that the corollary is also true: the reader reads for a similar boost. What distinguishes one writer from another resides in the exact nature of the boosts they afford…

–Seamus Heaney, “Brodsky’s Nobel: What the Applause Was About”

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Stanza 7 is marvelous, I think. Here the child is transformed into a sailboat in the father’s imagination. Implicit are the grace and strength of a sailboat, the inevitable “sailing away” of the child from the parents, adolescence (“blushing orange”), and even pregnancy (“billowed with wind”)–her own and, of course, the wife’s.

This is the best possible ending, I think, one that satisfies the emotional and aesthetic expectations set up at the beginning of the poem and yet takes off on its own.

–Judith Hemschemeyer, commenting on Bob Vance’s “Her Daughter” in Poets Teaching: The Creative Process, edited by Alberta Turner (New York: Longman, 1980): 146-7.

Read Bob Vance’s “Her Daughter” here.

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For those who have learned something of higher mathematics, nothing could be more natural than to use the word “beautiful” in connection with it.  Mathematical beauty, like the beauty of, say, a late Beethoven quartet, arises from a combination of strangeness and inevitability. (27)

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, a sort of revolution occurred in mathematics: the emphasis shifted from science-bound calculation to the free creation of new structures, new languages.  Mathematical proofs, for all their rigorous logic, came to look more like narratives, with plots and subplots, twists and resolutions. (27)

–Jim Holt, “A Mathematical Romance” (a review of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, by Edward Frenkel), New York Review of Books LX.19 (Dec 5, 2013), pp. 27-9.

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A successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.

–Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” in Georgia Review 50.4 (Winter 1996): 697-713.

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“You’re admirably good at endings, and your poems seem to end up somewhere both inevitable and unexpected.”

–Jacqueline Kari, “‘Letting Ambiguity Have Its Way with Me’: An Interview with Mark Yakich.”

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“The work must be judged, the idiom related to norms, its use to pertinence, its lack of pertinence to the virtues of surprise, surprise in turn to coherence. However, sympathetic, the critic must stay awake.”

–Mary Kinzie, “The Rhapsodic Fallacy” in The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993): 24.

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TL: I like… what’s the word? Provocations. And Fat Girl [a 2001 film, directed by Catherine Breillat]  is definitely a movie that provokes response and thoughtfulness. She’s such a personal filmmaker. It’s such a personal vision. And you never forget it after you’ve seen it. I mean, the ending of Fat Girl is so shocking.

CC: I did not see that coming.

TL: Upsetting. And yet also inevitable. I mean, that’s what you always look for as a writer. You always hope that you can both take people by surprise and at the same time they realize, “Oh, that was coming the whole way.” And I think that that’s the case with Fat Girl. It’s very, very carefully designed in that way. And again, very personal, so it’s not a movie that could be made by a man. And the point of view of Fat Girl is so distinctly feminine. So for me, it is again, a look in on somebody else. Somebody who’s not me. And so I value it for that reason. Carrie had not seen it before. We watched it just the other night, and I think you liked it.

CC: I loved it. I think it was so psychologically complex. And I think you’re right about the inevitability of that ending. As shocking as it is, as you say, it really couldn’t end any other way.

–Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon, with Alex McLevy, “Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon program a 24-hour movie marathon for our lockdown viewing.” AV Club. April 7, 2020.

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Elegance, the internal structure of the [mathematical] proof and the singular way in which means corresponds to end, and form (how a proof demonstrates) to content (what it demonstrates), requires precision, conciseness, simplicity, and coherence. The more complicated the theorem and simpler the demonstration, the more elegant the proof. When we marvel at the elegance of a simple proof to a complex theorem, we are seized simultaneously by its appropriateness (its necessity and sufficiency are such that it cannot be otherwise) and also with surprise (how can such a thing be so simple?) “Yes, it can only be this way!” and “No, how can it be?” Elegance creates and sustains surprise within logic. Explanation becomes inexplicably surprising and satisfying. In the end, what surprises and pleases in an elegant proof is its ability to explain so that we understand. Einstein once said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

–Claire Chi-ah Lyu, A Sun within a Sun: The Power and Elegance of Poetry (Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2006): 135.

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Most narratives contain an element of surprise.  If we can predict every twist in a plot, we are unlikely to be gripped by it.  But the twists must be convincing as well as unexpected.  (71)

–David Lodge, The Art of Fiction (New York: Penguin, 1992).

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“Rather than a stunning and clinching revelation, the line seems both too much and not enough.”

–William Logan, “Verse Chronicle: Weird Science” (on Kimiko Hahn), Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 2014), 147.

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And though by the end of the poem we have become quite used to the aural pleasure of these rhymes, something astonishing happens in the final quatrain: the content of its last line…is potentially overpowering.  Nothing in the preceding eight stanzas prepares us for it, and even if the Holocaust seems in retrospect to be everywhere in “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It,'” the poem’s final lines continue to surprise.  When we hear the first half of the final stanza…we are fully prepared for the aural experience of the stanza clicking into place with a rhyme on “childermas.”  We don’t necessarily expect the poem to jump to a new register…, but the expected rhyme makes the leap seem horribly inevitable. (99-100)

–James Longenbach, in a chapter called “Composed Wonder,” the final chapter of The Resistance to Poetry (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004).

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The emotional transparency of the final sentence of Where Shall I Wander–“Together we are a couple forever”–feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable, foreseeable yet always about to be known (123).

The whole speech [that is, Edgar’s speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act III, Scene 4, beginning, “A servingman,” and ending, “says, suum, mun, nanny”] moves with the interlaced energy of surprise and inevitability that distinguishes alert conversation, and, as a result, the speech feels driven by forces larger than a single speaker’s intention to express what he already knows. The language functions as the fulcrum of itself (129-30).

–James Longenbach, The Virtues of Poetry (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2013), pp. 129-30.

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We’ve both been kind of fascinated over the years by the similarities between dramaturgy and magic. It’s the same thing. It’s just that magic is using the mind to lead itself to its own defeat. Right? And the same thing is really actually true of drama. What you want to do is you want to set up a proposition so the audience is going ahead of you, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. So that the end, just as in a magic trick, it’s surprising and inevitable. It’s inevitable that you say, “Yes, I understand that’s probably what would have happened.” And surprising because it happens in an unusual way.

–David Mamet, in Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Kino Lorber, 2012).

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…in the physical world of the poem, images rarely come by themselves and for themselves. For poetry is a complex ordering of experience, and order implies relationship, connection–a doubleness. One of the most characteristic acts of poetry is to take two or more separate, apparently unrelated things (images, objects, persons, qualities) and put them together. They turn out, in the context of the poem, to be related after all (in at least some respect), and to reveal something new and unexpected and convincing about the nature of things. In a real sense, the lion lies down with the lamb. (7)

–James E. Miller and Bernice Slote, in The Dimensions of Poetry: A Critical Anthology (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1962).

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The complementary qualities that most practitioners try to arrive at in forming a closure are surprise and a sense of inevitability. The surprise in the content or insight should be organically arrived at through the discovery mode, the “How-Do-I-Know-What-I-Think-Until-I’ve-Said-It” method of impromptu exploration. The sense of inevitability isn’t the quality of predictability, but the apprehension of an order of inner and outer perfected form which our senses of aesthetics, intuition, and logic make us feel when something has been organically and fully completed. (253)

–Jack Myers, The Portable Poetry Workshop: A Field Guide to Poetic Technique (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2005).

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trick ending  (also known as “twist ending”; see SURPRISE ENDING)  an unanticipated and unprepared-for TURN in a narrative’s CLOSURE. The t.e. is usually considered a defect in STRATEGY. … (326)

surprise ending  a CLOSURE containing a sudden and unexpected TURN that catches the reader off-guard. Such a conclusion is a TRICK ENDING, and thus a defect in structure, unless it has been subtly and carefully prepared for by FORESHADOWING. An effective s.e. can be seen in James Wright’s poem Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. … (294)

–Jack Myers and Michael Simms, The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms (New York: Longman, 1989).

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Great short stories and great jokes work toward a moment of insight.  We call that either a punch line or an epiphany, depending on whether we’re Henny Youngman or James Joyce.  This is the most luminous of similarities between a joke and a story: narrative with a firework built in. (181)

We laugh [after hearing a punch line], having just experienced a sudden cognitive reorganization.

This reorganization is triggered by perception of an appropriate incongruity….Humor is rooted in what is called “appropriate incongruity,” the understanding of an appropriate intermingling of elements from domains that are generally regarded as incongruous. (182)

“I often ask myself what makes a story work,” Flannery O’Connor says, and then she answers herself by stating that “it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected.”  Could there be a more fitting definition of appropriate incongruity?  The inevitable surprise? (182-3)

Humor depends upon surprise, but that surprise must be crafted.  This seeming paradox is at the heart of great humor.  Humor is fundamentally ambiguous.  It is grounded in an ambiguous system of relations–relations that are simultaneously incongruous and appropriate. (183-4)

Perhaps that is the difference between a competent short story and a masterful one.  It is not the degree of surprise  but the degree of the correctness of the surprise. (185)

–Antonya Nelson, in “‘Mom’s on the Roof’: The Usefulness of Jokes in Shaping Short Stories” (in Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2001), pp. 180-93).

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The pleasure we get must come from the fulfillment of an expectation that the resolution…will make use very purely, indeed exclusively, of the given materials, plus our surprise at the use made, which as straight men for the occasion we should not have thought of.  But note that  although we should not have thought of the reply, the very fact of its employing only terms already used gave us a not quite explicit sense that we might have thought of it in another instant; that though we did not in fact think of it, our minds were playing with the possibilities…so that the answer, as a matter of timing, seemed “right” or “inevitable,” responsive to a wish on our part for symmetry and economy together with a certain shock, the compounded fulfillment of fairly definite formal expectation with a material surprise.  We might compare what happens with what happens in music, eighteenth-century music, say, where to a strict and relatively narrow canon of harmonic possibility, including certain clichés of cadence, is added the composer’s originality at handling his materials within the convention.

…a characteristic we have already noticed in jokes: the compound of expectation with a fulfillment which is simultaneously exact and surprising, giving to the result that quality sometimes thought of as inevitability, or rightness.

–Howard Nemerov, “Bottom’s Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes,” in A Howard Nemerov Reader

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Of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” McGill professor Dan Levitin states:

At about the point when the right hand starts playing the melody four measures into the piece there’s this burst of feeling.  In general, what’s going on is that what we want as listeners is for music to surprise us but not too much.  If the music was completely surprising we’d be disoriented.  On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable, we’d grow bored of it, and it would seem banal.  And what the composer has to do is find that balance and get it just right: the Goldilocks zone.

Brooke Gladstone translates this as “the just-right amount of surprise.”

–“How Music Conveys Emotion,” On the Media (February 17, 2012)

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Effective surprises are ones in which the audience begins by being taken aback and ends by nodding their heads as a result of recognizing that the surprise has been prepared for… (333)

–James Phelan, “Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory.

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I hope the forms in Chattahoochee do indeed set up that tension between decorum and the breaking of decorum, as you put it. There is nothing that gives me more delight in poetry than surprise. I think of Rilke’s “you must change your life.” Of Bishop: “And I let it go.” Of Herbert: “Me thought I heard one calling, Child / and I replied, My Lord.” And if surprise is one of my great pleasures in poetry, it requires first an expectation, and the suspense of waiting for it to be fulfilled. I love the narrative movement of sonata form, when a symphony establishes a phrase, elaborates it almost beyond recognition, and then finally returns to the tonic key that we had almost, but not quite, forgotten. It is journey that ends in a homecoming. And that is, I think, the ideal relationship between decorum and surprise: a poem that is both surprising and inevitable in its closing lines, as the formal contract with the reader is upheld, but not in the way that we expected.

–Patrick Phillips, interview in “The History of the Personal and The Personal in History: The Poetry of Patrick Phillips,” an interview with Billy Reynolds

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Surprisingly Apt

Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike. The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.

–Arthur Plotnik, in Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 15.

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The Image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison, but from two realities, more or less distant, brought together. The more the relation between the two realities is distant and accurate, the stronger the image will be—the more it will possess emotional power and poetic reality.

Two realities that have no relation whatever cannot be brought together effectively. No image is created. An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic—but because the association of ideas is distant and accurate.

–Pierre Reverdy, in Nord-Sud (March, 1918).

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The ending bears all the weight of the story, its task nothing less than imbuing the story with meaning and making it unforgettable. The ending must fulfill the reader’s expectations by answering the questions that have been raised in the reader’s mind (or at least some of them), and it has to make sense, but at the same time, it should be unexpected. I don’t mean I want a surprise—I mean, even if I know how the story will end, I want to be surprised by the way I get there. The writer has done his job, novelist David Leavitt says, when the reader’s reaction to the ending is “Oh my God,” followed by “Of course.”

–Elissa Schappell, “Endings: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow”

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The first step is the hardest–says the popular adage.  But in dramaturgy the reverse is true: the last step is the hardest.  Evidence of this is the countless dramas the first half of which promises well but which then become confused, halt, waver, especially in the notorious fourth act, and finally come to a forced or unsatisfying end, or to one everybody has long since foreseen….This difficulty of denouement is the result partly of the fact that it is easier to confuse things than to straighten them out again, but partly too of the fact that at the beginning of the play we allow the dramatist carte blanche, while at the end we make certain demands of him….We then demand that this outcome shall be achieved naturally, fairly and in an unforced way—and yet at the same time not have been foreseen by the audience.

–Arthur Schopenhauer, in Essays and Aphorisms (edited by R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 1970), pp. 164-5.

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A hyperdetermined conclusion will have maximal stability and finality; and when these qualities occur in conjunction with unexpected or in some way unstable material…the result will be wit–which, as many have observed, occurs when expectations are simultaneously surprised and fulfilled.

–Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

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Surprise Me

We’ve come a long way from the days when you could end a story by revealing that the diamonds were fake.  Yet the best short fiction still pleasures us with the unexpected, and when stories fail, it’s often exactly because they don’t surprise.  This panel of short story writers, fiction editors, and teachers will investigate the kinds of surprises that give the reader that sense of the floor dropping away, while maintaining the organic integrity of the fictional dream.

–description of a panel for the 2012 AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair, pp. 120-1 of the conference program.  The panel featured presentations by Edward Porter, Robin Black, Tracy Winn, and Erin Stalcup.

Read Erin Stalcup’s panel presentation here.

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The kinds of surprises that I concentrate on in this book are…merely a small subset of the great wide world of surprise.

I call them “well-made” surprises: “well-made by analogy to the nineteenth-century “well-made play” that mixed precepts of Aristotle (by way of the Neoclassical French Academy) and the popular tropes of the Paris Boulevard theaters to create a heady and reliable formula for crowd-pleasing plots. But the phrase “well-made”also fits because their ruling aesthetic is concerned with the degree to which the surprise in question has been cleverly constructed and set up beforehand. The tradition of the well-made surprise asks, has this revelation been built on an expertly crafted foundation? It places highest value on the satisfactions that come from the sense that the plot is a finely constructed mechanism, a well-oiled trap, with pieces that snap together tightly. A well-made surprise plot is one that aims to produce a flash reinterpretation of events together with the feeling that the evidence for this interpretation was there all along–the surprise should not be merely unexpected but also revelatory.

To build such a plot you have to point first in one direction, then turn around and point in another, while also producing the impression that the whole has been coherent and even inevitable. (1-2)

Our starting point is a recurring storytelling predicament: how to surprise audiences in a way that seems inevitable, or at least credible, in retrospect. (14)

Making stories that will surprise audiences is pretty easy…: you can kill off characters with no warning or turn them into snakes. But a satisfying surprise is a different matter. As one recent guide to aspiring writers put it, “The reason twist endings are hard is because they have to be a surprise without being a surprise” (N. Turner 2012 [“Five ways to end with a twist,” Script Frenzy]). Surprises of this kind are not constrained to a single genre, though some genres–most notably the classic clue-puzzle detective story–are more vitally invested in them than others are. Many stories in print, on film, and even in conversation are structured around a specific kind of surprise: one in which information revealed late in the narrative reveals a new, transformative interpretation of what has gone before. (19)

…”[T]he revelation surprise succeeds only if, first, it is unexpected and, second, it does not, in retrospect, conflict with the information otherwise presented. In fact, the surprise should do better yet. In the ideal case, the new interpretation of events not only should seem compatible with previously narrated material; it should feel like a superior, more correct understanding of that information. (20)

The curious fact about surprises of this sort [that is, well-made]…is that they can manage to satisfy people and genuinely surprise them, even when they rely in large part on a relatively small and frequently recurring set of tricks. Even when the tricks are very familiar indeed, they can still serve to produce twists that feel fresh and surprising and also well motivated, each supplying a revelation that not only seems compatible with previously narrated material but also feels like a superior, more correct interpretation of that information. (88)

The alleged ideal of the classic mystery novel, which depends so crucially on climactic explanations, is to present a solution to the central mystery that is both surprising and consistent with all the mysterious facts as presented. (97)

…[W]ell-made narratives can realize their intended outcome: a surprise reversal that seems to have been available all along. (123)

I suggested at the start of this book that, in general, stories that aim to entertain should be surprising and perhaps also that the surprises should be counterbalanced by some degree of presentiment and expectation. (170)

[M]any modern readers in the Western tradition have a strong craving not just for surprises but specifically for surprises that seem to supply new and unexpected coherence to what went before. This is the defining feature of well-made surprise. (174)

–Vera Tobin, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot

* * *

The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however…estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former.  The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

–James Wood, in How Fiction Works

* * *

Poetry reanimates the poetic origins of words. It does so, as Emerson, Shklovsky, Stein, Rilke and many others have pointed out, by making us see language, and therefore things, again as if they are new, and also by reminding us of those “kindred names,” those connections we have forgotten. The connections are unexpected, but when they are made, they feel true. (71)

The excitement of intuitively and attentively moving from one idea or object or memory to another in a poem, and then another and another, and in doing so discovering connections one did not consciously realize were there before, is a great pleasure of reading and writing poetry. Poems are the place where we can feel free to make those connections.

This is why a poet doesn’t ever need to worry too much about plots, or characters, or consistency, or completeness: a poet keeps those structures as long as they help move the poem along, and then at any moment throws them away in favor of the pleasure and excitement of making unexpected and also right-feeling associations. (73)

We have all read poems that rhyme, or that have line breaks, or that exhibit some other kind of signifier that what we are reading is a poem, and thought to ourselves, there is nothing here. I feel nothing. We feel this nothingness not because we don’t know enough about poetry, or because we are missing the key or the code. We feel this way because there is no poetry in this poetry, no movement of the mind that is surprising but also true.

Without some aspect of this type of movement of the mind, something might look like a poem but it won’t be. (129)

In various ways, poets look for associations, connections, leaps that feel both surprising and true. (130)

It is for a feeling of surprise and only retrospectively obvious connection, especially in the last line of the poem, that haiku are beloved by so many. (131)

The shift [in Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”] from this philosophizing to personal anecdote, as the speaker turns to talking about the friend talking about language, and then the former lover, is accomplished with grace and confidence. The poetry is in this shifting, the movement from one idea to another that is both unexpected yet also retrospectively logical. (137)

It matters greatly, of course, that what is being said in the poem [Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”] is attentive, thoughtful, surprising, and at least for many readers, seemingly true. (138)

A poem moves through contradiction, connecting previously unlike elements so we understand in new ways. Sometimes, in doing so, a poem lands on what can feel like a great truth. So many of us come to poetry for those succinct, distilled moments. They feel true and right, just as when an unexpected, perfect metaphor clicks into place. (145) [Further on, Zapruder notes, “This is what a great metaphor can feel like. There is an aura of surprise to a great metaphor, as well as an uncanny familiarity” (153).]

–Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry?.

* * *

So, as I’ve been preparing how to introduce myself to you as the new host of the TED Radio Hour, I have kept coming back to OK Go and Damian Kulash, and how he comes up with these new ideas, because he says his ideas aren’t new at all; they’re just concepts that he has put into a new context, and the result is surprise, and wonder, which is kind of how I think of what I’ve been doing over my last twenty years as a journalist. My job is to rigorously collect all the facts and stories, to interview just the right people, and then make connections and present them in a way that feels unexpected…by just right.

–Manoush Zomorodi, “Damian Kulash, Jr.: How Can We Reimagine the Creative Process?,” TED Radio Hour, March 13, 2020 [for context, start at the beginning; the portion quoted above begins at 2:12]

* * *

To read about the ways I think fitting surprise can be used to challenge some recent thinking about poetry, click here.

9 responses

12 05 2011
Surprise! « Structure & Surprise

[…] added a new page to the blog: Fitting Surprise.  Atwood, Longenbach, Schopenhauer, and a bunch of others make appearances.  Check it […]

15 01 2012
Visual and Verbal Wit « Structure & Surprise

[…] check out the thinking on verbal wit here, and see if it applies to visual wit–I think it […]

25 03 2012
Surprise Me « Structure & Surprise

[…] Of course this panel interested me.  As the editor of a book called Structure & Surprise, I’m clearly fascinated by surprise, and I find surprise to be a key element of virtually all kinds of creative writing.  More specifically, I’m very interested in a kind of surprise that I’ve come to call “fitting surprise,” that is, surprise that is not merely shocking but somehow fits its context.  It is this, frankly, magical mixture that gives so much writing its power.  I’m not the only one to think so; I’ve collected a number of quotations from various writers, artists, critics, and commentators who seem to indicate that they, too, find fitting surprise (by whatever name they call it) particularly powerful.  (You can find these quotations here.) […]

21 04 2012
Surprised by Syntax: Stanley Fish on the Sentence’s Turns « Structure & Surprise

[…] this blog, especially some of the comments on the surprises that can be found in fiction (available here, and here), which fleshes out Fish’s notion of “an angle of lean” by suggesting […]

25 09 2012
Fitting Surprise in Mathematics « Structure & Surprise

[…] noteworthy because they seem both inevitable and unexpected struck a chord: Hardy was impressed by fitting surprise in mathematics, and fitting surprise is something—an aspect of poetry and many other arts […]

12 04 2014
Linda Gregerson on Moving Forward by Going Elsewhere | Structure & Surprise

[…] from the poem but also is deeply (and wildly) appropriate to it–a turn, that is, that has fitting surprise.  Seeking out and deploying thrilling turns is not only a part of Gregerson’s process, but […]

23 06 2015
Stephen Dunn on Fitting Surprise | Structure & Surprise

[…] Fitting Surprise […]

13 05 2016
1 05 2020

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