The Unexpected in Fiction

I’ve blogged about surprises in literature before, but I’m going to take a somewhat different angle this time.

It’s a good thing when authors — whether their usual writing approach is formulaic or not — offer the unexpected. That helps keep things fresh for the authors…and the readers.

I thought about this last week while enjoying the latest Jack Reacher thriller — No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child. In many ways the 2022 novel is like the previous 26 Reacher books: justice-minded drifter/ex-military cop Jack doesn’t hesitate to get involved in dangerous situations and wreak havoc on the bad guys (while frequenting unpretentious eateries between the action moments 🙂 ). But among the differences in No Plan B is that there’s no significant romantic interlude for Reacher, who’s had many such interludes over the years. When Jack joins forces with Hannah Hampton (who knew two of the book’s murder victims) to travel from Colorado to a very suspicious Mississippi prison, no sleeping together ensues. It’s friendly, but all business.

Just before No Plan B, I read John Grisham’s 2017 novel The Rooster Bar. It contains many Grisham touches: a legal theme, characters in big trouble, lots of suspense, a strong social conscience, etc. Humor is rarely a big part of the Grisham mix, but in this case there were more funny moments than usual — with things getting close to slapstick at times. Even the title is a pun of sorts.

Of course, authors can also surprise readers by writing in an entirely different genre, as when Grisham came out with the 2012 baseball novel Calico Joe after more than two decades of mostly legal thrillers.

Also in 2012, J.K. Rowling radically switched gears from the magic-filled, fantastical, periodically humorous Harry Potter series she had completed in 2007 to write The Casual Vacancy — a bleak, serious, real-world look at a small town and its politics. Turned out to be pretty compelling. Then Rowling pivoted yet again to create (under the Robert Galbraith alias) the wonderful series of crime novels starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Six of those books so far.

John Steinbeck also kept readers on their toes with a canon that mixed partly comedic efforts (such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and CR sequel Sweet Thursday) with earnest classic works (such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent). Steinbeck could be VERY funny when he wanted to be.

Margaret Atwood also changed things up. Mostly known for speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) and contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye, etc.), she turned to the past for one book with the historical-fiction novel Alias Grace. Atwood excelled at all three approaches.

Or how about Mark Twain actually focusing on a female character — in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc — after years of fiction concentrating on Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various other males? Plus he broke his mold by using virtually no humor in the Joan of Arc historical novel.

Getting back to surprises within specific novels, there’s the hilarious devil scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mostly weighty masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

Then there’s the way some titles of novels throw readers for a bit of a loop when they read the books. For instance, I’m currently midway through the superb The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (who previously wrote 2016’s also-superb A Gentleman in Moscow) and I thought from the title it might be largely a car trip “road novel.” But while there’s some cross-country driving in The Lincoln Highway, a train trip, a stay in New York City, and other elements are also quite important to the plot. More on the 1954-set, 2021-published book in next week’s post.

Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about local celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and more — is here.

89 thoughts on “The Unexpected in Fiction

  1. Being not so read, it’s difficult to find surprises.
    However;
    Joy Fielding’s suspense ability is a fabulous mainstay of her writing.
    “Grand Avenue” is a departure. Not much suspense, but a compelling tale of a microcosm of humanity.
    This might be why it’s my fave book of hers to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! That’s a great example! As you note, “Grand Avenue” is more “general fiction” than “suspense fiction,” though it does have some suspense. The first Joy Fielding novel I read after you recommended it!

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  2. I may be expanding the category, since my example, Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, a poem-novel, can in itself be considered a surprising turn, given the author’s near-exclusive prior devotion to pure poetry. But to my way of seeing, the most surprising turn in the book is also the central defining event: Onegin’s duel with Lenski. A duel is also known as an affair of honor, yet Onegin behaves like he has none.

    I will leave it to Puskin idolator Nabokov to describe and rationalize the many ungentlemanly ways of his hero.

    “He deals Lenski a gratuitous insult, by grossly oversleeping, in result of which the fuming youth has to wait a couple of hours or more in an icy wind. He omits somehow to secure a witness, and while knowing as well as Zaretski does that in an encounter between gentlemen the seconds must of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, he turns up with a servant, thus dealing Lenski another silly insult. He fires first and shoots to kill, which is quite out of character. Lenski, no doubt, has murderous intentions, but Onegin, a fearless and scornful marksman, would, if in his right mind, have certainly reserved his fire, and not even returned it, but, if still alive, thrown it away, i.e., discharged his pistol into the air. When Lenski falls, one almost expects Onegin to wake (as Tatania does) and realize that it had all been a dream.”

    It’s a bit sad to see the Nabokov reduce himself to the role of overreaching apologist for a fictional cad. By the rules of behavior governing duels, Onegin, were his rude acts known among them, could never have redeemed himself among his peers.

    A superfluous man indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Very interesting take, and I can see how that “Eugene Onegin” duel and the results are a bit of a surprise. Still, the title character is often less than admirable, so not a total surprise. And, yes, a poetry novel is indeed an unexpected genre.

      As for Nabokov, that guy annoys me. 🙂

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      • Nabokov is a tough row to hoe, especially when he is grading his perceived rivals in the eternal world of literary rivalries. He is not a pleasant critic, nor a generous one.

        But in his defense, I cannot imagine reading “Eugene Onegin” without having his notes as accompaniment. He worked very hard on connecting up all possible references in “EO” to Russian and mostly French influences, as well as laying a social and political context to the work. Having nothing but English under my belt, I confess freely to not being able to read his excerpts in French and German, but what I could understand in the remainder of his two volumes of notes was helpful indeed– even if his biases were sometimes distracting. They were also food for consideration, if not agreement.

        Haven’t read upon this notion, but it occurs to me that “Ada” with its lengthy poem and lengthier accompanying notes, grew out of the voluminous work he performed on “EO.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re absolutely right, jhNY, that Nabokov did a LOT of research and was a brilliant man. His novel “Pale Fire” is sort of emblematic for me of his personality. A stunningly original and often compelling work, but lacking any warmth.

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  3. Several positive things about Jack Reacher’s No Plan B.
    First thing we could be sure Reacher would be active incoming Octobers and does not sound like has any plans to retire.
    Secondly in this one he is more thoughtful before reaching for his guns.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Unexpected in Fiction | BLISSARENA

  5. A number of authors just can’t be pinned down, eg Bradbury, King, Murakami, etc. Sometimes they veer from what one would consider expected based on their past novels. Yet one specific author, Anne Rice, really threw me for a loop when I discovered she wrote BDSM under two different pen names — Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure. The novels are Exit To Eden (which is also a film) and the other The Sleeping Beauty Quartet. That’s not just veering off the path rather like running the truck into a ditch, ha! Great theme Dave. Thanks, Susi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi! Yes, the authors you named excel or excelled at variety, at least occasionally. As you know, Ray Bradbury, for instance, veered from sci-fi with a novel such as the nostalgic “Dandelion Wine.” Loved your take on Anne Rice’s versatility! 🙂

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      • I would read Dandelion Wine every summer, wonderful book. King wrote some really good murder mysteries void of killer clowns or vampires, although still the stuff of nightmares. In fact, nothing is more nightmarish than an individual who appears to be either generically benign or sweet and charming. As Shakespeare observed “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.” Yikes! A nice little link you or some of your other followers might enjoy: https://youtu.be/4Tg54sEYeSU
        Thanks, Dave. Susi

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Dandelion Wine” IS a wonderful book about childhood, Susi — I guess semi-autobiographical in Ray Bradbury’s case. I’ve read it just once.

          And, yes, Stephen King can be quite varied in his approach, and I agree that clowns and such who are up to no good are quite creepy!

          A well-said comment by you. 🙂

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  6. Hi Dave, as I mentioned to Rebecca, and to you previously, I tend to read most famous works. A few examples of author’s producing something markedly different would be Enid Blyton with The Land of Far Beyond which was a children’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The Brontes’ all started with poetry before changing over to novels as did Rudyard Kipling whose poetry was quite controversial (I’m thinking of The White Man’s Burden and some others). Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which was different to his other works and Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal which is quite different to Gulliver’s Travels. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year. Ha, I thought of quite a few after all 😉👍

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As you know, Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and it’s partly because he has such different tones in some of his books. Even amongst his serious ones – “the Moon is Down” is considerably different in tone than works like East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath. Another author to fit this bill is Jennifer Chiaverini. She made a name for herself with her quilting novel series, but then she occasionally releases really fantastic (and much different in tone) historical-fiction works like “the Resistance Women” and “Lincoln’s Sisters.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Very true that there are major differences even between Steinbeck’s serious novels. “The Moon Is Down” is of course also set in Europe — a departure for such an American-centric (and often California-centric) author.

      And it DOES sound like Jennifer Chiaverini is quite versatile!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m a fan of Lincoln and Child’s Pendergast series, which are generally murder/mysteries, but the last two they’ve written in this genre have taken a big left turn into fantasy involving different realms, man-eating aliens, and more- quite the twist!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am afraid, Dave, that often times my memories of the real impact a book may have had on me diminuish, or what I consider my values, may have changed. Anyway, I am rereading Jane Eyre after 5o years and the courage and tenacity of this girl in a very tragic situation seem to touch me much more than when I was young. Of course, life was much different then for everybody. Thank you very much for making me thinking:)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great examples of those twists. I give the authors you mentioned a lot of credit. I tried to escape the series I wrote, but I’ve been dragged back in for one last story (I think).

    I’ve read a lot by Bradley Lewis. He’s written well-researched non-fiction and historical fiction. A few times, he drifted into fiction, and the books have been very good. The first book of his that I read was “Celebrity Gangster – The life and times of Mickey Cohen” non-fiction account of a crime boss. The book I’m reading now is “One Big Chunk” which is a very funny poke-fun-at the medical industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dan! I definitely understand the pull and the need to continue doing something until its logical conclusion before changing gears.

      And I appreciate the mention of Bradley Lewis, who I was not familiar with. Sounds like an excellent writer with a diverse “canon”!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Howdy, Dave!

    — Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced in literature? —

    In the last century of the past millennium, it made no sense that Pierre Boulle was the author of both “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “Planet of the Apes.”

    In the first century of the present millennium, it all makes perfect sense.

    That was unexpected . . .

    J.J. McGrath (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      Yes, those are two VERY different “animals” (including apes) when it comes to fiction. And I agree that almost nothing feels too crazy for our crazy 21st century. 🙂

      Great to see you back here! Hope you’re doing well!

      Like

  12. When I was in high school, I read, I think, everything John Steinbeck had, by then, written. And I was almost never disappointed because he offered such a wide variety — but he never lost his voice in the process. Thanks, Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! Excellent observations about John Steinbeck. I totally agree. I think part of his voice was sympathy for the “underdog” and working-class people, whether his approach was serious or comedic. And you were quite a high school reader!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fleming also wrote “Thrilling Cities”, a kind of travel book for sophisticates such as himself, which also included a bit of himself. I owned it years ago, but only leafed through before I gave it to a grateful Bond enthusiast.

        When I received Chitty Chitty etc for Christmas, the year, I think, of its American publication, I was a bit old to appreciate much of it– but I thought those whistling sweets were a swell idea. I’m guessing in real life they wouldn’t work so well as in the book, or else somebody would have made some. Maybe somebody did.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Another thoughtful post, Dave, which has reminded me of a personal debate that I have had over the years: should I should read all of the books of one author or a diverse selection of authors. So please forgive me for digressing.

    Time has always has always been an issue for me so I have had to make difficult decisions on which books I should read. You mentioned “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I chose not to read “Lincoln Highway” (an entirely different theme) because I decided that “Circe” by Madeline Miller needed my attention. Then my attention turned to Joan Didion and “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

    I have come to the conclusion, that whatever approach we take is based on our individual preferences and interests. What I love about these discussions is that I am introduced to new ideas and books through the eyes of another. I cannot read all the books on by TBR stack of books, but I can experience the joy of reading through family and friends. Thank you for creating a space that celebrates the art of reading and conversation.

    Oh, I must include a quotes by George R.R. Martin, from his book “A Dance with Dragons: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

    Liked by 5 people

  14. Just quickly, my first thought for last week’s blog was “Moby Dick” which I’ve not read yet, however from reading this blog each week, I’ve learnt that it took a while for it to be appreciated. I feel like it is the last of the big classics to tick off my TBR, and am looking forward to getting to it in 2023.

    For this week, my first thought was John Grisham but only because it’s the exact opposite of what you’re talking about. I’ve just started his 1994 published “The Chamber” and am finding myself comforted by the familiarity of it. Sure, Grisham’s themes are somewhat predictable, but you can also predict that it will be gripping and unputdownable.

    Sorry, still not really sticking to the rules am I?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! Yes, “Moby-Dick” took a long time to be appreciated, but it does have unexpected moments that also fit this week’s theme — with one example being the funny Ishmael-Queequeg scene in an inn bedroom before the Pequod sets sail.

      And, yes, there’s something to be said for predictability that still remains very compelling, book after book. John Grisham’s work is certainly an example of that, with him changing up the plot of each novel enough to not be TOO repetitive.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Dave, it’s amazing and refreshing when our favorite authors succeed in bringing us the unexpected in their novels. The Lamplighters: A Novel by Emma Stonex, recommended last year by Barbara, blogger at Book Club Mom, comes to mind with its unexpected unfolding of the mysterious disappearance without a trace of three lighthouse keepers. The story is inspired by the real life events of the Flannan Isle mystery of December 1900, brought to my attention by another blogger, John Knifton.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! “The Lamplighters” sounds excellent, and a mystery with especially unexpected elements is something to be wished for. 🙂 Plus novels inspired by real events definitely have a certain believability factor. 🙂 I just put it on my to-read list.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. The surprise I can think of is when I’m reading along and there in front of me is the most exquisite description, metaphor, or sentence. Another surprise I can think of is when an author breaks with the conventional wisdom for whatever the genre is–and it works beautifully. Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall gave me both experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Interesting and sometimes unexpected for sure, Dave! When an author does it within the same novel, it can really throw readers for a loop! When Steinbeck did this in “The Winter of Our Discontent,” he was criticized for abruptly changing tone. It did surprise me, but it was because I wasn’t really paying close attention, especially not remembering the ancient Greek playwrights who knew comedy and tragedy were often two masks of the human psyche. We often know very serious people who also have a great sense of humor. Steinbeck and Atwood are masters at portraying both in the same novel.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Yes, toggling between comedy and tragedy can make sense in literature because life is often like that — and, as you allude to, many people have both aspects in their psyches. John Irving and Zadie Smith, among other authors, are also masterful at the comedy-tragedy juxtaposition.

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