An Unexpected Journey

I started to entitled this blog simply “Swamped,” or “Overwhelmed,” or something along those lines. I haven’t been keeping up with my blog lately, simply because I have been so incredibly busy with my day job. In addition to teaching a full load and an independent study, I’m responsible for writing all the pages for the University’s new website that tentatively has the launch date of March 1. With emphasis on the word tentative, of course, because saying something will happen doesn’t necessarily make it so.

And even though I’d rather be working on my novel–or novels, since I always have several percolating in my head–I am counting the days toward summer and then toward retirement when I can indeed focus on such trivial pursuits as banging out 360 pages.

chosen 400This morning I was thinking about the Biblical story of Jacob, the son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham and father of Joseph, that I someday hope to write a book about, similar to Chosen, the book on Jonathan that I wrote last year. The trick in writing Biblical novels is you have to keep faithful to the Biblical narrative while still leaving enough surprises in the story to make it interesting to your readers. Fortunately, the Biblical telling is usually so sparse that it can be fleshed out with righteous imagination without deviating too much from the truth.

That got me thinking about a discussion we had in one of my classes the other day. A student talked about predictability and giving readers what they want. I then quoted Robert McKee, author of Story, the textbook for my Drama Writing class: “Give the reader what they want, but not in the way they expect it.”

This is a very important principle in writing. If you deviate in either direction, you risk disappointing your audience. You can disappointing them by not meeting their expectations, or you can disappoint them by meeting their expectations so predictably that they know the ending before they read it.

It’s one of the ways I measure a good book. Was I surprised in the end? Or did I know what was going to happen? You can’t just have a bolt of lightning fall out of the sky and kill the villain (or hero) deus ex machina. Your solution has to make sense. But it has to be something unexpected.

As a writer, I find that taking a predictable scene and turning it on its ear is sheer fun. I can’t wait to see or hear the response of the reader. For me, most of writing is mind games. It takes a lot of personal psychology to sum up the courage to write a book, and then another, an another. Either that, or you have to be a little crazy. But there’s also psychology in dealing with the reader. And the more you write, the more you see this.

Give them what they want, but not in the way they expect it.

It’s a key to writing happiness.