A Reading List of the Unexpected

From Dictionary.com:

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.

Short stories:

~ “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.

How To Foreshadow

What is foreshadowing?

Linguistically, fore + shadow means a shadow is thrown in front of what it is meant to cover. In fiction, foreshadowing is a device used to hint at what’s ahead in the story.

Foreshadowing may appear through setting; through characters’ thoughts or actions; through objects; or through symbolism.

Here are a few classic examples:

In Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost is not only a visitation from a murdered king seeking vengeance, the ghost foreshadows Hamlet’s own death.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens announces a foreshadow: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The line illustrates some characters are enjoying an easy life while others are struggling. It also foreshadows that circumstances will be switched by the end of the story.

In Of Mice and Men, the title itself is a hint that Lennie’s  accidental killings of innocent animals early in the story precursor the inevitable death of a person at his hands.

What are some ways to inject foreshadowing into a story? What are some hints given by foreshadowing?

1. How setting can be used to foreshadow:

~ Woods or forests can hint that a character will face a battle with nature in the story;or a character will seek refuge from another man by hiding in the woods; or an unnatural danger lurks there but is hidden by natural growth.

~ A lake, pond or any body of water can mean someone will or has drowned; water can also be cleansing; a setting surrounded by water (island) can portray isolation, both physical and mental.

~ Cemeteries hint at death; cemeteries also hint at rebirth. In Michele Magorian’s Good Night, Mr. Tom, a refugee child is sent to the country during the London Blitz. Willie is terrified when he’s placed near a cemetery, but it foreshadows his future. His old life is about to die, and  a new–better–one begins.

~ On the flip side, a move from one type of place (a city) to another (the country) can hint the expectations of the move will not be met. A family who announces in chapter one they’re leaving the big city for the peace and safety of a bucolic small town is pretty well guaranteed to move next door to a serial killer.

~ Weather can be an indicator of the ominous: Storm clouds equal trouble brewing; a strong wind brings change; rain is a sign of slowly rising tension. And does anything good ever happen on a dark and stormy night?

2. How objects can be used to foreshadow:

~ The gun in the drawer, the sword on the wall, the knife on the counter predict a violent conflict. Whoever is near a weapon on the page, is probably going to need to pick it up and use it at some point in the story.

~ A valuable object such as a family heirloom appears in a story for a reason: it will be stolen; it will be lost; it will be eaten by the family dog; it will give a character strength during a climactic moment.

~ The appearance of a sick or dying animal hints at violence, illness or madness up ahead. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s shooting of the mad dog in the street was both symbolic and a foreshadow of what was ahead for Macon: it will be visited by madness and it will take a courageous man to end it.

~ The appearance of a traditional symbol–a crow for death, a snake for danger, a mockingbird for innocence–are omens. Omens foreshadow.

3. How interactions can be used to foreshadow:

~ A story that opens with a person being threatened or bullied foreshadows more of the same for that person; a person portrayed as a coward will have to show bravery at some point. Think Neville Longbottom.

~  If a stranger is walking along a road and a truck pulls up slowly and the two guys give the stranger the stink eye, guess who will be at the bar/diner/gas station up ahead, waiting to give the stranger an unwelcoming welcome to town?

~ In a mystery novel, if one character says to another, “I bought my plane ticket this morning, so I only have to survive three more days in this stinking town” he might have just sealed his fate of dying before those three days are up.

Foreshadowing is meant to subtly ramp up the dramatic tension in the story. It’s different from a red herring, which is meant to mislead a reader. Foreshadowing is truthful, but since it is subtle (we hope!)  it’s up to the careful reader to interpret the author’s clever inclusion of foreshadowing elements.

Do you use foreshadowing in your writing?


Tomorrow’s topic: How to Write an Artist Statement