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.