un·ex·pect·ed (adjective) — not expected; unforeseen; surprising: an unexpected pleasure; an unexpected development. Origin: 1580–90
Last Saturday night I gave a talk about seeking the unexpected in writing. I love twists and turns, pivoting plots, unreliable narrators and surprise endings, but also the more esoteric elements of the unexpected in stories: a unique narrative voice; a brave choice by an author; a quietly bold ending.
How are these general ideas—unique voice, brave choice, bold ending—put into practice? In my talk, I mentioned novels that included some element of the unexpected. In response to requests that night and a few subsequent emails, below is a list of stories I used as examples of the unforeseen and surprising. Each employed an unexpected element that added to my reading enjoyment:
~ The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The narrator is Death, but it is also a sympathetic book about an ordinary German neighborhood during the rise of Nazism.
~ The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton – The antagonist is selectively mute, but more so, he is a criminal who is not particularly charming, amusing, or otherwise disarming, but someone who uses his single talent to get by.
~ Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons– There is a play on words in the title, but Ellen is a child narrator with a wise voice.
~ The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller – A love story for the middle aged. There are not very many of those when it was written, and this book opened the door for similar stories to follow.
~ Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear cozy mystery series – In this series, the sleuth is a caterer. She also had been an abused wife. Cozies didn’t do issues or real life problems. DMD blew that out of the water, for good.
~ The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne– Eight-year-old Bruno, the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer, thinks their new home Out-With is a farm and the people wearing “striped pajamas” are farm workers. Bruno’s innocent interpretation of his surroundings represents the willful blindness of adults during the Holocaust.
~ Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– It is revealed early on that Cathy is a clone but why she and her friends were created, and how they became fully developed individuals capable of love and hurt, is an unexpected byproduct of the project.
~ “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin – A surprise ending that is so well foreshadowed, the reader never sees it coming.
~ “August Heat” by F. W. Harvey – An open ending that is also well foreshadowed, but what exactly will happen is unknown.
~ “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury – A single change can change the world—and does.
Have you read a story with an element of the unexpected? If so, please share.
3 thoughts on “A Reading List of the Unexpected”
It took me a long time to figure out what was going on in Never Let Me Go, and when I finally realized the whole truth, it was devastating. Same with the ending of Bel Canto.
And then there’s, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” A thousand pages leading to that little twist.
I had read the cover copy, Kathy, so I had a heads up! Another of his that I liked a lot was When We Were Orphans, but it got mixed reviews. It’s my favorite. Go figure.
I rarely read cover copy because I want to be surprised (and I don’t trust the people who write cover copy). I read When We Were Orphans as well, but it didn’t have anywhere near the emotional impact on me. With NLMG, it was the “as if the top of my head were taken off” thing.