Consider this random grocery list, left behind at a supermarket.
Anything strike you?
That’s what this blog’s about. Not a suggestion that if you can’t fix a passage or find a publisher, stock up on butter pecan ice cream, toffee peanuts, chocolate syrup, and marshmallow fluff for topping. Nor will the following suggest how to build a character from a mash-up of income, hair color, education, favorite TV show, and place of birth. Instead, here’s the deal.
Tip: The wonderfully unexpected is available everywhere; you only need to notice.
And that’s mostly a matter of habit. Because finding pattern in chaos approximates the age of humanity itself. Things have changed, though:
Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. — J.P. Shiel, “The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon”
For creators in any field, including fiction, the price paid for that instantaneous knowledge is high. We’re no longer continually on the hunt for the observations to protect our families, no longer sifting and sifting to recall a particular fact. It’s easier just to look it up, and that includes storm watches and warnings.
This means it’s harder for the cook or woodworker or novelist to surprise herself. That’s not good, because as Jane K. Cleland puts it, “The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations.” It’s why people don’t want to know the ending of the book or movie in advance. Surprise is fun.
Now what’s this got to do wth shopping carts? Scrutinizing details is among the many potential strategies for perceiving pattern and producing surprise. For example, what can you infer from the list above?
Lots of brand names
Both fancy tortellini and pedestrian hamburger
If you wanted to, couldn’t you use this list to build a profile, shape a character, compose a backstory? You probably don’t want to, because that’s unlikely to improve your novel. Here’s what will, though:
~ Notice everything around you. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.
~ Recognize “found art.” Ruminate on its meaning.
~ Check for patterns in the apparently random. This might take practice.
~ Look for potential organization in what seems totally chaotic.
~ Train yourself to brainstorm without censorship. Inhibition thwarts creativity.
Next time you find someone else’s list, imagine the story behind it. This will open you to a more insightful and original version of that story you really want to tell.