If you want to spend an entertaining and informative afternoon, look up your favorite comic strips and standup comedians. Then, analyze them. You can still watch and laugh, but actually pay attention to how they’re making you laugh.
Both mediums have the same goal (to make you laugh), and neither one has a lot of time to do it in. With comic strips, they’re limited to a certain number of panels or a set space in the paper. With comedians, they only have so many seconds (minutes at most) to pique your interest before you change the channel or boo them off the stage.
Surprise, surprise, they both use similar methods: most often, they build up a story or a situation in a way that makes you think that you know where they’re going, and then when they get to the climactic moment, they go somewhere else. And with the best ones, the unexpected place that they go works perfectly with the buildup, too. Like one of those drawings that has two images hidden in it – most people see one instantly and have to change perspectives to see the other one.
As writers, we’re often trying to guide the reader in one direction while setting up a big surprise (red herrings, anyone?), but this technique can work on all scales. It could be the buildup for a plot twist. It could be a bit of banter. It could even be part of the worldbuilding or your hook. Any or all of the story can be twisted to reveal new facets of perspective.
I call this the art of the unexpected.
Intriguing stories live and die by the unexpected. Because what is the expected? It’s predictable. It’s boring. It’s the same story we’ve read hundreds of times before with nothing to make it stand out from the crowd.
So why didn’t I just say “Don’t be predictable!”?
Well, difference for the sake of difference isn’t necessarily good. There’s a huge pressure on artists to create new and fresh innovations, and unfortunately, people will completely stress themselves out trying make every single piece of their work completely different and new. The only problem is that some of the work has to be predictable. Part of it has to be expected or common in order for us to relate to it. We need a starting point. If too much is new, reading the book has a hard learning curve, and a lot of people will set it down.
Besides, if it’s all new, then there’s no buildup. It becomes one level. The surprise is lost.
That’s why comedy is such a good example of how the new, unique, and unexpected rely on the expected. It takes both of them to make it work. And the goal is not necessarily to invent or find some entirely new element. No, the goal is to shift the element you have in a direction that reveals a different perspective. Give us the expected with an unexpected twist. If you find the right combination, and we won’t be able to put the book down.
And that’s why I call it an art.