Are Your Readers Surprised? By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

At a recent Inklings meeting—my semi-weekly writers’ group—one of the members said, “Cheryl I don’t think your protagonist tried hard enough to escape his dilemma.  I knew he wasn’t going to survive.”  At this particular meeting we had an out of town guest in attendance.  Her rebuttal was my protagonist’s demise had actually shocked her.

You may recall words I’ve shared in previous blogs about my unfortunate inability to keep my characters alive.  Try as I might, they always seem to perish and in this particular story, he dies in a most gruesome fashion.  Since I value both of these author’s opinions I had a dilemma, who to surprise or who not to surprise with my ending?  The guest at our meeting, who has in the past read several of my stories?  Or my fellow Inkling, who has read almost every word I’ve ever written?  In the end, I knew it was my story to tell, but it kept nagging at me.

It’s a question I believe we must all ask at some point in any creative career when considering our audience.  Do you continue for instance, to paint only landscapes because they sell and it’s what your patrons want from you?  Or do you change to abstract and hope it is as well received?  In writing there is at least one genre, that of mainstream romance, where there are generally no surprises.  Most romance readers don’t want to be surprised.  Yes, they understand there will be struggles, but in the end they know and want the happily ever after ending.

While pondering the question of surprise in my fiction I was unsettled by the realization that it had been quite some time since I personally had been surprised by anything, in my day-to-day life.  While I routinely am surprised when painting—at times the brush takes on a life of its own and in writing—don’t you just love rereading something you wrote and being surprised by your own creative words?  But my routine, the flow of days at 50+ years, is fairly consistent.  Yet I’ve always abhorred the word “contentment”.  My family has heard from me on more than one occasion, “There will never be a rocker on the front porch for me to sit complacently in and watch days go by, one after the other.”  So I had to ask myself how had the element of surprise slipped from the fabric of my days and was it being mirrored in my fiction?

Then my grandchildren—five total, ranging in age from fourteen to five—came to visit for several days.  Children=Surprise.  When they are around there is a surprise occurring in every moment, of every day. And when it comes to the make believe of creating story they open new worlds with an ease both miraculous to watch and lyrical to hear.  As was evidenced when we played the makeup a story game while sitting around the fire-pit at night.  “Once upon a time…”  Each story started and was then added to by the next child and then the next, until its surprise ending.  Everything is new and wondrous to these young minds and it fueled my old one with many new and surprising ideas. 

Surprise: To make somebody amazed or to experience something unexpected.  Isn’t that why we create story, or art of any kind? 

With the element of surprise still buzzing in my being I faced my dilemma once more.   Should my protagonist live or die?  Alas, he must die.  Perhaps I will one day give my fellow Inkling a hero who lives beyond my story, but for now I will continue to surprise my readers with the unusual means by which my characters must meet and accept their demise. 

The painting below is another one of the “controlled accident” paintings I spoke of in my last blog.  Imagine my surprise as I sat staring at it—at that point it was still just an abstract—and not one but two illusions of skulls appeared.  I enhanced them and added marigolds and as if by magic, I now have a new Day of the Dead painting. 

So what surprises are you creating?


“Day of the Dead Rising”

An Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson (MeCo)

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