‘I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition’
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” (Monty Python)
As an example to writers of how to use surprise… and fear, and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. And spiffy red uniforms…
Okay, so unless you’re doing an erotic novel called the handmaiden’s tail… maybe not the spiffy red uniforms.
Or the fanatical devotion to the Pope. It’s a form of villainy that’s predictable in that it’s so overdone. Now if it was the current Pope’s socialist leanings, that might be a surprise, as this doesn’t get the kind of mention as Catholics as stereotype villains does.
Ruthless efficiency is always good. Mind you, it can be good even with Ruth.
Fear… yes, well, sometimes. But not… as a surprise, if the reader is expecting it.
The unexpected actually is a key part to the sf/fantasy writer’s toolbox.
But… like the repetitive appearance of Monty Python’s Spanish inquisition, the same thing is not a surprise. How it works is not dissimilar, technically, to the humorist’s laughter provoking. Both are reactions to something the reader did not expect. The classic Charlie Chaplin gag – where the viewer sees Chaplin and the open manhole, with street-debris (which happens, in full sight, every frame to include a banana-peel)
Every step focuses on Chaplin… and then manhole, closer and closer. The viewer expects him to fall in the manhole… which might make some people laugh.
Instead he steps OVER the manhole. And- having played the audience with the expected, disaster then strikes with the banana-peel (which you have seen, and would have expected if not for the focus on the manhole. Everyone always laughs. It’s not kind or even that funny… but it is a psychological coping mechanism for dealing with that form of unexpected.
As a writer, what one does is to create expectations… (like the manhole) and then twist that expectation. Take this from Dan Simmons (who the SJW have decided they love to hate, for apostasy and heretical thought. Also possibly for expecting the Inquisition, for the sin of daring not to grovel at the feet of the new idol, Pippi Woke-scold. Amusingly, their dogpile failed miserably, sending Simmons’s HYPERION to number one in its category on Amazon – above their darlings. Do support him if you don’t like the shrieking harpies)
“Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.
He sets up an expectation in the first two lines. Shows the manhole… with the possible banana skin… And he uses more than setting. He uses a deliberate language choice, both style and cadence. And then flings us into something we don’t expect.
We want to know what is going on. That’s how humans work. Give us the expected, and we can ignore it, or choose to go along. Give us that sort of ‘trap’ and we will read on – at least far enough to figure, more or less, what the author is on about.
Hopefully, by then, the reader is hooked.
I’m no Simmons, but this something similar:
The castle — an ethereal mixture of faerie frailty and an acid fueled dream of someone madder and more romantic than Mad King Ludwig — floated among the roil of red-lit clouds. The fragile hanging turrets, spires and battlements dangled over the hungry emptiness of the thousand mile void below.
“Thrymi,” said the second Mate. “The Zell cloudcastles are more solid-looking.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite as beautiful in all my life,” said the slim young man — all knees, elbows and an eager puppy expression — who clung to the rail of the tiny observation deck, the knuckles of his outsized hands white with hanging on through the buffeting.
The mate nodded. “The castles are pretty. Unlike the Thrymi.” She stood easily, riding the turbulence with confidence and ease.
He shook his head. “They’re just misunderstood. Really. It’s a very different and complex culture…” he said enthusiastically
“They’re just murdering bastards. Actually, the whole place is full of murdering, thieving, evil bastards who’d sell their own mothers for half a dollar. It’s a good thing that there isn’t much standing space for them, or there’d be more of them.”
It’s a balancing act between providing a framework of expectation… and then delivering something that is in the framework (so the reader doesn’t feel cheated) but not expected.
I wish I could tell you more… but then you’d expect it.