Surprise Causes Writer to Choke on Big Mac
The first time I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp, I choked on a Big Mac.
It was a cold March day 15 years ago, and I was in a McDonald’s in Norwich, New York, eating lunch, when a passage took me by such complete surprise that I started choking.
Reluctant to suffer an ignominious death in a Mickey D’s, I dropped the book and looked around clutching my throat. Thankfully, an old-timer saw what was happening, jumped up from his seat and gave me the Heimlich (he was remarkably spry as I recall). The food dislodged. (Never mind where it went. Gross.)
“What the hell happened?” he asked.
“Something surprised me,” I said, nodding at the book. “Something I read.”
“Well, you probably shouldn’t eat while you’re reading then.”
“Probably not, sir. Thank you.”
As I sat down, I glanced at the book that had nearly caused my death. I realized that, while I didn’t want to cause readers of my own writing to choke in fast-food restaurants, I did want to emulate Irving’s ability to surprise them—the smile-inducing sentence; the word choice that evokes a gentle shake of the head; and best of all, the memorable, unexpected scene.
From the first, what grabbed me most about the novel was its delicious unpredictability. Take the first line, for example. I can quote it from memory:
Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.
This was, and still is as far as I’m concerned, one of the best opening lines of a novel ever. The key word, of course, is “wounding.” From time to time, I consider the dozen other words he could have used there, and I realize what a surprising and brilliant choice “wounding” was. Stabbing? No, too specific, too violent. Injuring? No, too vague. What about “lacerating” or “contusing”? Afraid not. “Wounding” was, and still is, perfect. The questions that “wounding” raises, and doesn’t answer, are what entice the reader to continue.
The famous Russian short story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov, once said the following (I paraphrase): “If a gun hangs above the door in the first act, it must go off in the last act.” As a student of Irving who has read Garp and one of his other excellent novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany, at least a dozen times, I’m convinced that Irving must have held Chekhov’s view—at least subconsciously—because nothing gets wasted in the story. Every character trait, setting detail and conflict is important, they all build to the climax, and along the way there are hundreds of surprises.
Today, looking out my window and watching the shaking trees, I remember that fateful day in McDonald’s when I not only learned to be careful trying to eat and read at the same time, but also the value of surprise in writing. Shortly after that episode, I wrote something on an index card that I’ve kept on a bulletin board ever since. It’s a piece of advice to myself that I’ve tried to heed in everything I write. Many times I’ve fallen short, but once in a while I nail it, and here it is:
Put a surprise on every page.
It’s the surprises that keep me reading.
It’s the surprises that keep me writing.
It’s the surprises that make life worth living.