The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.

Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.

Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.

What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.

The kitteh is surprised

Surprise Kitteh is surprised.

This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)

The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.

How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.

Ways to make your audience curious

Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.

WHAT happened? (mystery)

Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.

  • Who really killed JFK?
  • Did aliens really land at Area 51?
  • What caused the Great Depression?

WHY did it happen? (whydunit)

This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.

How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?

Debates about the present are value choices.

Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.

What WILL happen? (thriller)

  • Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
  • What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
  • Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?

WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)

  • Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
  • Why is Tommy Lee Jones in some movie with Meryl Streep about lovey-dovey nonsense?
  • What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)

What should you do about the FUTURE?

Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.

  • As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
  • Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
  • Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?

Ways to surprise your audience

It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.

Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).

Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.

A good surprise must reveal something:

  • a secret you hinted at before
  • how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
  • how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.


About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

17 comments on “Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

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  4. PHS
    October 16, 2014

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    I’ve seen that whale clip before and it’s great. Thanks for an enlightening post – re-blogging on Archer’s Aim.


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  8. Mayumi-H
    August 31, 2012

    Hee-hee for surprise kitteh, and for evil felines making ready to enslave us.
    Good points brought home well. The NASA engineer is a great example of those smaller surprises that make a story.


  9. Amanda Fanger
    August 31, 2012

    Thank you for this post! I read it early yesterday morning and it was nagging at the back of my head all day long. Then suddenly, I was hit by an idea that turned out to be a missing element in my current fiction novel project. So I just wanted to take a second to say, “thank you!” Also, I mentioned and linked to this post in my blog last night:

    Keep up the good work!


    • Guy
      August 31, 2012

      You’re welcome, and thanks for telling your peoples.


  10. lindseyjparsons
    August 30, 2012

    Another fab post! Thanks!!
    And I loved the adorable cute kitty too!! 😀


  11. Liesel Hill
    August 30, 2012

    Great post! I hate the kind of love stories where after all their trials, guy and girl are finally going to get to be together…and then one of them dies in a freak accident. *pulls hair out and screams* I HATETHAT! It’s setting your audience up in a bad way! I always say if there’s going to be tragedy, there needs to be a point to it–it should be part of a dynamic characterization or a historical event or something. Anyway, I totally feel you! Awesome post! Thanks! 😀


  12. joeynga
    August 30, 2012

    Dammit Guy, you gave away the ending to my thriller. Now I gotta scratch the last chapter dealing w/ the whole global cat-aclysm and write something else.

    But it still was a truly excellent post 🙂 I shall retweet.


  13. Elise Logan
    August 30, 2012

    Surprise kitteh is always awesome. And I think you missed a kind of curiosity – the “why” of getting together. You got the “why-done-it” one, but not the “why-marry-it” one. Though I suppose that’s a terrible title. In any case, I think I’ve mentioned to you before, like thrillers, the joy of a romance isn’t in knowing what happens at the end – you know the good guy wins (mostly) and you know the guy gets the girl (unless it’s the Spork, who is compelled to kill off main characters like Joss Whedon on a bad acid trip). Instead, the joy of romance story lines is figuring out the WHY of these two characters. Why did they fall in love? What things about each character moved the other? Is there something in that love that I recognize? With which I can identify?

    I think of romance as the anti-pathos version of the emotional spectrum. Pathos is designed to yank your emotions out and twist them around so that you purge yourself of whatever nasty little human feelings you have hanging around. Romance (like the best sort of hero-movies) is designed to draw you into yourself and point out the best things about being human. Love, sacrifice, selflessness.


    • Guy
      August 31, 2012

      You only speak the truth.


  14. Darlene Jones
    August 30, 2012

    Good post. Thanks.


  15. juliabarrett
    August 30, 2012

    Thank you for another excellent post… and I love surprise kitty!


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