The Thrill of the Unexpected

Recently, I was preparing for a trip and was in the mood for a mystery. With nothing new out from my favorite authors, I searched on-line. I ended up downloading two books, one set in North Wales, one of my favorite places in the world, and the other in Belfast.

Both of these books are the first in a series, but I’m not sure I’ll buy the next ones. As I read them, the writer part of me kept analyzing.  I could easily tick off the various character/plot conventions: Beleaguered and frustrated hero, a police detective in both cases. Check. Personal quirks to make them unique. Check. Traumatic past histories to make them sympathetic. Check. Female sidekick (also a detective) to add a feminine viewpoint. Check. Complex mystery plot with a devious and diabolical killer. Check. An attempt to create atmosphere and a feeling of place and time (one was set a few years in the past). Check.

Everything was there for me to love these books. But I didn’t. I never quite engaged with the main characters. Nor could I turn off the writer/analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the story. They weren't bad books, but they were great ones either.

When I got home I found a book from one of my favorite mystery writers (Ann Cleeves) waiting for me on the library hold shelf. It's the first book in a series that has been out in the UK for years. This time, instead of being simply an entertaining way to spend my time, the book gripped me from the beginning.  I stayed up way too late the first night I started reading, and then couldn't wait to get back to it at work on my breaks and my lunch hour.

So what's the difference between this book and the other two moderately entertaining ones? There's a number of things I could focus on, including the quality of the writing. But one aspect I immediately noticed is the difference between the expected and the unexpected. This book starts very slow. Although there's a death--a suicide--early on, neither the real mystery nor the police detective character are introduced until over halfway through the book. The whole first half is backstory and slow build-up and is told from the different perspectives of the main characters.

It's a very subtle and compelling way to craft a mystery. And totally unexpected. The characters are also atypical. They definitely aren't types, nor do they fit standard mystery characterizations. Not even the police detective. There is no checking off boxes with this book. There are subtle, tiny revelations and intriguing details on nearly every page, and the freshness and surprise in way the story unfolds makes it feels like life and makes the characters startlingly real.

This author didn't craft this story based on familiar mystery tropes or character prototypes. She ignored all that and came up with something original, something unexpected.

Ann Cleeves is obviously a brilliant writer. But I think there is a lesson here for us more ordinary genre novelists. Too often we lean on the rules and techniques we've been taught and don't even consider doing the unexpected. We may try to make our plots twisty and suspenseful, but most of the time we settle for the expected in everything else.

That's not everything it takes to write a great book, but maybe the idea of doing the unexpected will help all of us write a less ordinary one.

Mary Gillgannon

Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

13 thoughts on “The Thrill of the Unexpected

    • In some ways, it can make it more difficult to enjoy books. But it also means that when you find a book you really love, you have an even deeper appreciation of the writer’s gifts. Also, because I usually read in genres I don’t write in, I’m not quite as critical as I might be. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Good reminders, Mary, thank you. Even more now than in the past, authors are urged to “Write Fast! Write Fast! Write Fast!” The current webinar gurus suggest four or more novels a year. Those two predictable books you read could be the result of this “Hurry, hurry!” marketing mindset. Then, too, Ann Cleeves is amazingly successful, with a sparkling thirty-year career. She has earned the trust of her editors, publishers and readers, so she has the luxury of writing free of the normal genre constraints. That said, Ann had to have “stepped out of the box” to some degree, earlier, to have achieved what she has. Thank you for sharing your experience, and for the good advice!

    • This was the first book in her Vera Stanhope series and she wrote it almost 18 years ago. I’m sure she didn’t have such an incredible reputation then. But also, at that time, editors were more willing to take changes on something different than they are today. And authors were allowed to slowly build their careers. But it’s still inspiring to me, even though I know how much more difficult it is to “break the rules” and get anywhere today.

  2. Mary, great reminder of how to make my story “stand out from the crowd.” And whew! I’m happy I’m not the only one that–sometime–critiques rather than being lost in a story and away from reality.

    • It’s easy to get caught up in rules, and I think sometimes they are more harmful to our creativity than helpful.

  3. What a great point, and something I had never thought about before! I’ve definitely seen the difference between books that are fine “on paper” (i.e., they check all the boxes), but they just don’t grab me the way other books (which may leave some boxes empty) do. Thanks for sharing!

  4. You make excellent points, Mary. The really good books and writers rise to the top. (without clichés like that one, too LOL.)

  5. Always good to be inspired. Falling love with books is the reason most of us became writers.

  6. I enjoyed the post. I am having a horrible time finding something that I can melt into. I don’t know if it is because I write, but as a reader, I find it more difficult to find books I want to invest what little time I have to read for pleasure.

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