Life can be surprising, with both welcome and unwelcome surprises. And it can be predictable, featuring both desirable and unfortunate outcomes. It seems to me that when we are reading fiction, we expect to encounter both the predictable and the surprising. In fact, we rather enjoy reading about surprises in other people’s lives – even unwelcome ones – because it makes the reading more interesting, and because the unfortunate event(s) aren’t happening to us. As a writer, I try to minimise predictability to keep the reader interested. But if events become too unpredictable, the narrative loses its credibility and the reader’s interest. So, I believe that, as in life, the narrative should have a mixture of predictable and surprising events, where the predictable isn’t just routine, and the surprising isn’t unbelievable.
Here are some examples from Fishing in Foreign Seas regarding the relationship between John (the main male character, Jamie’s younger brother) and Michele, John’s girlfriend. John is a fancier of the ladies, and he is somewhat mesmerised by Caterina, Jamie’s fiance. But, at the same time, he is a bit shy about his first contact with a lady. During a dinner dance on New Year’ Eve, there is this exchange between Caterina and John:
<“John, there’s a girl over there who’s got her eyes on you.”
“The girl with brown hair in the yellow dress at that table there to my left.”
“I think she’s watching you.”
“No she isn’t, John.”
“Well, maybe you’re right.”
“Why don’t you ask her to dance? She is quite pretty.”
“No, I don’t think so – I don’t know her.”
“It doesn’t matter! Go on, John, ask her to dance!”
Reluctantly, he took her back to their table, and disappeared across the dance floor. A few minutes later, she saw that John was dancing with the girl in the yellow dress and they seemed to be having an animated conversation.>
That’s all reasonably predictable. But later in the evening (in Philadelphia), this is what happens:
On the way home, after continued prodding from his mother, John confessed: “Her name is Michele, she’s French, her father works at the French consulate, and she’s a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital.”
That’s a bit of s surprise!
Some months later, Caterina and Michele are sharing a room in Jamie and John’s family house. Look at the differences in the attitudes of the two women (one Sicilian, the other Parisian) to their bodies:
Michele proceeded to strip herself naked, tossing the clothes on her bed, picked up a towel and disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned, she toweled herself at the foot of Caterina’s bed and began to make conversation.
Caterina was unnerved. ‘I’ve got to keep my eyes on her face,’ she thought, ‘why doesn’t she get dressed? Hasn’t she any modesty?’
Michele was oblivious; she continued to talk about her work in the hospital, while carefully drying her under arms and her bottom. Finally, she went to her suitcase, took out some underwear and proceeded to put it on, by now explaining to Caterina why none of the nurses liked a particular orthopedic surgeon.
Caterina had seen pictures in fashion magazines of underwear like Michele put on, but it had never occurred to her to buy anything like it for herself. ‘It’s too provocative!’ she thought. A yellow thong and push-up bra, both decorated with white lacy panels.
“You going to take a shower?” Michele inquired.
“Yes, I think I will.” She got up, and took off her blue blazer, matching trousers, silk blouse, and her tights. She put the trousers, blazer and blouse on hangers in the closet. Picking out a fresh set of white underwear, she went to take a shower, her towel under her arm.
Michele eyed Caterina as she returned from the bathroom in her clean white underwear.
This is fairly predictable.
Several years later, John, who is still together with Michele, but unmarried, is suddenly diagnosed with bone cancer, and part of his left leg is removed. This is the conversation between John and Caterina in John’s hospital room:
“What is it, John?” Caterina asked.
“John! What is it?”
“Have you seen Michele?”
“No. When did you last see her?”
“It was a couple days ago. I called to tell her I was having the operation.” He looked at Caterina with sad intensity. “I haven’t seen her since.”
“Doesn’t she work in this hospital?”
“Yeah, she works in the operating theater.”
“You didn’t see her when you went in . . . ?”
“No, I was out like a light.”
“And she hasn’t called . . . or . . . ?”
“No.” They looked at each other – dismay on both faces.
“Strange, very strange,” she said.
John’s cancer and the sudden disappearance of Michele are certainly surprises. Caterina tracks Michele down in the hospital. This is the conversation between them:
“Michele, I need to talk to you for a minute.” Michele put down her magazine and stared at Caterina defensively.
“I’m on duty.”
“Come with me for a minute.” Caterina took her arm and pulled her to her feet. At seven pm, the corridor was deserted.
“What do you want?” Michele asked in a surly tone.
“It’s not what I want. It’s what John wants. He wants to see you!”
Michele’s mouth opened as if to say something; then she looked away, her lips trembling. She tried to turn away, but Caterina took her arm again, restraining her.
“Tell me!“ Caterina demanded softly.
“He’s a cripple! . . . I can’t. . . . No, he’s a cripple,” Michele began to sob.
“He’s not a cripple! He’s lost a leg. In a month or so he’ll be walking again. He needs you, Michele.”
Michele shuddered. “A cripple,” she said softly. The tears were coming profusely now.
Caterina retained her grip on Michele, looking into her face but saying nothing.
“My uncle . . .” Michele faltered
“Yes, what about your uncle?”
“He lost a leg in a bombing when he was fighting in Algeria. . . . He used to come up behind me when I was studying. . . . I could hear his wooden leg on the floor.” Her eyes were squeezed shut and she held her trembling hands out in front of herself in a defensive gesture. “He touched my hair . . . and he reached around and . . . he touched me!” She covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Caterina put her arms around Michele and hugged her until she was quiet. They stood motionless for a time.
“Michele, John loves you. He is not your uncle.”
As Michele looked at Caterina, apparently without seeing her; her pager sounded. She disengaged herself and looked at it. “I have to go,” she said.
Then, there is one more surprise when John has just won an election as a US Congressman from Pennsylvania. He and Michele have not seen each other for about a month. While John, his campaign staff, family and friends are celcbrating his victory in a hotel ballroom early in the morning. Here is what happens:
Jamie saw her first, and he nudged Caterina. From across the room, a solitary figure in a blue and white striped uniform and wearing white pointed cap was slowly approaching John. Her demeanor was reserved yet determined. It was Michele. She stood slightly behind him and to his left, waiting patiently for him to notice her. The two men to whom John was talking kept glancing at her until John turned to see who they were looking at.
“Oh, Michele . . . “ he said. The two men moved away.
“Congratulations, John,” she said, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands. “You did very well!”
He said eagerly: “It’s great to see you, Michele.”
At that, she dissolved and the tears started. “Oh, John, I’ve been so stupid. . . . So very stupid. . . . . Will you forgive me?” She stood looking at him, her cap slightly awry, dark streaks of mascara on her cheeks, her hands at her sides and an expression of pure sorrow on her face. John leaned forward on his crutches and embraced her.
“I’m so sorry, John, I’m so sorry!” she said softly.
“I love you, Michele!”
She began to weep in earnest: “I don’t know why. . . . I don’t deserve it.”
(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)