[— Karen Myers —]
When I was in college (in the 70s) I visited the London Zoo in Regent’s Park during a summer vacation. They had a wonderful indoor nocturnal exhibit, all sorts of critters in dark terrariums who were awake during visitor hours because their normal schedule was reversed.
It was, not surprisingly, dark in there, so dark it was hard to read the labels. As I recall, there were reptiles, and bugs, and all sorts of things, but they hid in their foliage very well and half the time you couldn’t tell what was lurking in the greenery.
At the same time that I entered, a young father came in, carrying his toddler son up against his shoulder so he could see into the enclosures. The two of them followed directly behind me as we circulated along the edge of the exhibit.
I learned three things that day.
First, small children have a hard time trying to see something in a darkened terrarium. As far as the kid was concerned, he and his daddy were taking a walk in a funny dark place with lots of plants. Hints from his father didn’t help him (might not know enough words yet, I thought).
Then we came to the last exhibit, and I learned my second thing — the final terrarium housed bats. I know this because one of them introduced himself out of the darkness — precipitously, right up against the glass,
And then I learned my third thing. A pre-verbal toddler, startled by an unexpected face right out of hell, has a scream of absolute outrage that is unmistakable.
It wasn’t just the surprise. It didn’t even seem like fear, not really. No, it was downright existential, an expression of extreme disapproval that such a thing should exist in a well-ordered universe, a denial of all that is sane and just. The creature wasn’t just unexpected, it was monstrous; it was the manifestation of betrayal by a reality that he had trusted until now. His objection had a recognizable moral component.
And that’s part of what matters when you decide to shock your readers. Don’t just throw a surprise in to mix things up, unless your aim is comic relief. If you’re serious, then make it matter, make it meaningful. Make it shake the foundations of your readers’ beliefs, in the story and out of it.
Have you ever been surprised in some fundamental way? What was it, and how did it change you? Have you ever used it, in your writing?