by Jonathan Sherwood
The act of reading is enjoyable yet often familiar, as stories weave through plots that always lead to conclusion. Jonathan Sherwood has a name for this quality found in most fiction: surprising inevitability, which he discusses in the post below. Read Sherwood’s story “Each Separate Star” in our [September/October issue, on sale now!]
“I just met a man with a wooden leg named Steve.”
“Really? What’s the name of his other leg?”
Okay, set aside for the moment that a properly placed comma would eliminate the confusion, and I think this shows how humor illustrates an important aspect of fiction called “surprising inevitability.”
Surprising inevitability is the idea that when you reach the end of a story, it should feel somewhat unexpected and yet feel like it belongs, and that this was where the story must have been heading all along.
A good way to illustrate this is via the most extreme example—a twist ending.
If you haven’t watched The Usual Suspects yet, skip this paragraph for spoilers. The last minutes of the movie reveal a twist so severe that it calls the events of the entire movie into question. But crucially, the moment it’s revealed who Keyser Söze is, the entirety of the movie also falls into place. When you arrive at the end, you’re completely surprised, and then as all the implications of that surprise sink in, you realize that the movie was inevitably leading you to this conclusion. What? He’s who? Oh my gosh, of course he is.
But surprising inevitability is part of all fiction, not just those with twist endings. Aristotle said of the most satisfying fiction: “We shouldn’t see the events of the ending coming, but once it unfolds, it’s the only way it could have ever happened.”
Alice Elliott Dark’s story “In the Gloaming” is about a mother caring for her dying son. The impending death is telegraphed on every page, but the “surprise” of the ending is not the death itself, but the realization the mother has about her own feelings and her understanding of her life because of her son’s death. If you knew she’d have this exact revelation from the first page, you’d never be inclined to read to the last. That conclusion is surprising, and yet once you take it in, you realize it’s exactly what the whole story was built for.
And that’s the key: ”built for.”
What is your story built for? What is its aim? What is the whole purpose of your story existing at all?
I think of fiction sort of as a pyramid. The top block is the ending. It’s the point you’re trying to get the reader to, and every other block in that pyramid exists in service to that block. The apex block can’t hang in the air anymore than you can have an ending without a story, and the rest of the blocks are pointless without the apex. You have to construct the whole pyramid so you can walk your reader to the peak, step by step. And then, when they’re there, they have a new—hopefully surprising—perspective on the world.
But, here is what I believe is the hardest part of writing fiction: If you have too many or too few blocks, the “inevitability” part suffers.
Humor illustrates this well because humor is surprising inevitability stripped down to its core.
Why is the wooden leg joke (somewhat) funny? Because you read the first line with a certain expectation—there’s a guy named Steve with a wooden leg.
The second line contains the surprise—someone thinks his leg is named Steve.
The inevitability part takes place in your head because you review the joke and realize that, yes, it could absolutely be read in a completely different way, and for whatever reason, we humans find that kind of unexpected shift in perspective to be funny.
Now, if you think of the joke as a pyramid, try adding some extraneous blocks to it.
“I met a man with a wooden leg named Steve. He had a dog and I think he works at Dairy Queen.”
“Really? What’s his other leg named?”
It still works, but obviously not as well. All that extra stuff about the dog and Dairy Queen contributed nothing to the unexpected shift, and actually gets in the way when you review the joke to understand the punchline.
And of course if you strip out anything from the original, maybe to just, “Steve has a wooden leg,” the joke doesn’t work either.
I strongly believe fiction works exactly the same way. For whatever reason, we humans love surprising inevitability. We crave it so much that we write millions of books and spend more to produce movies than the GDP of some countries. If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I believe you need to maximize it.
That means stripping out all the blocks that don’t support the apex—delete scenes that aren’t of service to your climax, regardless of how wonderfully written they are. Does the scene build your characters in a way that makes the climax more powerful? Keep it. Does the sentence paint a setting that gives the final moments more impact? Keep it.
But if a word isn’t in service in some meaningful way to that last block of your story, it’s degrading the effect you’re working toward.
Bringing your readers to a conclusion that contains unexpected elements is only half the equation, and I think it’s the easier half. It’s somehow natural for us to create that surprise.
The other half, the inevitability, I think is less intuitive and therefore harder to write. It takes place entirely in the reader’s mind as they review the events of the story (or joke) and find new meaning in them. It’s the most important part of a story because it’s where the reader looks back on the journey you took them on, and realize that there are elements to the story that they thought they understood, but they now realize those things add up to something new. They have a new perspective on the world because you’ve shown them that things they thought were familiar have surprising qualities—and always have. And that makes for the most satisfying kind of story.