Surprise and Suspense in Storytelling, Journalism, and Literature

A creative writing course exploring the craft of storytelling across genres, including journalism and reportage, memoir, the novel and the short story, film, television, theater, poetry, music, and comedy. Taught by Jay Dixit

We’re all taught that art should be original, but what does this mean for the craft of writing? As writers, how can we give the reader something truly new?

On a more practical level, students who become working writers will find themselves enjoined by editors, publishers, producers, and directors to generate article ideas that are more “counterintuitive,” to draft rewrites that are “fresher,” to write prose that’s more “muscular,” to pitch movies that are “edgier,” to make characters more “three-dimensional.” But what do these buzzwords mean operationally, and how can a writer respond to such vague directives?

The writer’s task is to develop a reliable creative process for producing original work and for taking the vague demands of editors and producers and translating them into steps she can take when writing and revising. Even feedback as commonplace as an editor circling a phrase and writing “cliché” can confound the novice writer—for what’s the method for conjuring a metaphor that is not cliché?

One approach is to consider surprise, along with its close cousins contradiction, irony, and suspense. Readers and audience members demand surprise. They want to see something new. They want a book to be original. They want a story they haven’t heard before. When they describe a movie as predictable, they’re condemning it as an artistic failure. If a writer can craft a story that feels emotionally true yet provokes genuine surprise, presenting readers with experiences and ideas they’ve never encountered before, she’s well on her way to creating an original work of art.

The forms of surprise that spring most readily to mind are the sudden jolt (the hand from underneath the bed that grabs the heroine’s ankle) and the twist ending (“It was a dream all along!”). But these in fact belong to a narrower genus we might term “cheap surprise”—gratuitous shocks that prey on the reader’s vulnerability and leave her feeling manipulated. In the case of real surprise, the reader feels jolted at first, but then quickly feels the rightness of it and is left satisfied.

E.M. Forster writes that a well-drawn character must be both surprising and convincing. I believe surprise is at work at all levels of writing. Like the fractal geometry of a coastline that looks the same whether viewed from a satellite or a microscope, surprise can be discerned at every level, from the inventive language in a sentence to the reversals in a story to the novelty of a book that transcends the genre itself.

Likewise, surprise operates in all forms of writing. The magazine writer finds counterintuitive stories that overturn conventional wisdom. The editor of a blog or newspaper writes a headline that “hooks the reader.” The composer introduces an unexpected chord change. The novelist withholds relevant information, then reveals it. The screenwriter engineers plot reversals. The poet plays with the reader’s expectations when she violates a poem’s sound scheme. The rapper creates innovative rhymes and lays lyrics over beats in novel ways. The comedian lulls the audience by establishing a pattern, then hits them with an unexpected punch line. All are instances of surprise.

The goal of this course is to help students improve their writing and storytelling, developing mastery in their preferred medium and learning skills they can apply to other genres. Each class session will be split between a discussion of assigned readings and a workshopping of a single student’s work.

Students will learn to discern surprise, irony, and incongruity in journalism, fiction, poetry, film, television, memoir, and music, and will experiment with telling stories in forms other than their native mode. The principles of storytelling transcend genres, and by developing an awareness of how surprise operates in various forms of art and across all genres of writing, students will learn to create work that is truly original.

Course Outline

  • Class 1: Surprise in Storytelling
  • Class 2: Surprise and the Counterintuitive in Journalism and Reportage
  • Class 3: Structure and Plot
  • Class 4: Suspense, Mystery, and Misdirection
  • Class 5: Middles: The Reveal and the Reversal
  • Class 6: Endings
  • Class 7: Irony
  • Class 8: Character
  • Class 9: Verbal irony: text and subtext
  • Class 10: Humor
  • Class 11: Parody, satire, and light verse
  • Class 12: Poetry and music
  • Class 13: Detail, prose, and metaphor