The Quality of Surprise

What makes a book so impressionable that one would read it over and over again? As I plow through writing my sixth novel, I am starting to understand and agree with what C. S. Lewis wrote (On Stories and Other Essays of Literature, PP. 12-17) on the topic. We probably all have favorite books on our shelves. I have boxes of these gems in my storage unit, and have tried on occasion to give them away or donate them to the library book sale. The effort pained me, like turning traitor on a friend. How many of those books have I ever re-read? Some, few.

Lewis says, 'A good test for every reader of every kind of book is asking whether he often re-reads the same story.' He ponders why someone would re-read a story if he already knows what will happen. Just what compels him, since he can't be curious and excited by the suspense of not knowing the hero's outcome, or the resolution of a conflict? He claims it is due to "a sort of poetry."

"The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises, but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood . . . . In the only sense that matters, the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time . . . . we are at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have the surprise of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia." (sudden change or reversal of fortune--yes, I had to look that up!)

Ah, I like this: "The plot--as we call it--is only really a net whereby to catch something else." Well, what it that something else we strive to create in our stories, to make them memorable and re-read by loyal readers? Lewis says, "The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path . . . . this internal tension in the heart of every story between theme and plot constitutes, after all, its chief semblance to life." Lewis concludes that we should be trying to catch in our net of successive moments [plot] something that is not successive, some bird of quality or essence that will linger and hopefully move the reader on a deep level. That is what makes us re-read books.

One of the complaints I often hear from editors regarding science fiction and fantasy is that the writer spends time creating an alternate world, drumming up bizarre unpronounceable names for characters and locale, and spinning wild stories that she (the editor) cannot relate to. Lewis remarks that the setting matters little. You can have the same dangers--cold, hunger, hardship--in your backyard as you can on the moon. It is so tempting for us to get lost in these worlds we create and forget that what the reader is looking for goes beyond that created world and that exciting plot.

Our challenge as Christian writers of fantasy is to present that quality or essence, weave it through the story, touch some human nerve, stir up a need. For me, it is the need for God, for truth, that I try to stir up without naming it. A longing, a hunger, a thirst for the only source that can satisfy. This is our challenge and our joy--to write, not just for fun, but to be used in a special, clandestine way, sent on a secret mission with a message of great hope and joy. And when you think about it--this message of the good news of never-ending, glorious life is like an outrageous, unbelievable tale. But like Lewis said, the difference is that it is a true myth. How great is that?


cathikin said...

Somehow I missed this one before. A wonderful essay on this quality of surprise. There is no one better to draw from than CS Lewis for such insight. Thanks.

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I can relate SO well to this post! I'm one of those crazy people who find "pet books" and reread them until they disintegrate! I've even had to replace "Christy" by Catherine Marshall (twice!!) and "A Voice in the Wind" by Francine Rivers! And I've had "Holy War" by Ethel Barrett rebound, because it's out of print, and you just can't find it anywhere now. I've also read all of my Madeleine L'Engle books over and over and over again. There IS a beauty and a poetry in a good story that keeps you running back to the well for more. But, like the illustration of the wine -- not to quench thirst, but to savor the sweetness.

Thank you, Susanne! Wonderful post.