I couldn't figure out whether or not my writing friend liked the story I'd sent him. Yes, he'd praised the characters as "interesting," said the plot had grabbed him and wholeheartedly approved of its themes. But it hadn't quite won him, and I could tell. Finally, the truth came out. "All the pieces are there," he said, "but it just doesn't grab me. It's predictable. There's no surprise in it." That sense of surprise is exactly what Andy Nulman wants to encourage in Pow! Right Between the Eyes!
A note right off the bat: Pow! isn't a writing manual. No, Nulman's intended audience is marketers, those folks who throw up billboards beside the freeway and insert commercials into the middle of our sitcoms and interrupt our Web surfing with pop ups. About as far from the business of narrative writing as you can get, right? Well, not really. Nulman does indulge in some of the excesses typical of his field. (Consider his over-the-top definition of Surprise -- the capital "S" is his -- as "the constant expansion of the boundaries of delightful extremes.") But the core of the book is a series of techniques intended to break you out of routine observation, to help you see the everday as, well, surprising. And that's exactly what writers need to do.
Suggestions to strip away preconceived notions, use great verbiage and become a time-bomb thrower (Nulman's neologism for little actions in the present that have an outsized impact in the future) are all welcome. But what really caught my eye were examples of his philosophy in action. An author slapping a sticker reading "Take this book home, it's free!" on his own titles and then surreptitiously slipping them into retail stores. A donut company selling a voodoo pastry that bleeds raspberry jam when stuck with pretzel pins. A District of North Vancouver posting a "bilingual" park sign urging people to pick up after their pets, the first half in English -- the second in Dog ("Grrrrr, bark, woof"). Pow! also notes something that authors ought to heed, namely that too much surprise can paradoxically become boring. Using M. Night Shyamalan's oeuvre as an example, Nulman shows how anticipation of the twist ending or the beast about to pop out from the shadows renders both stale and boring. Surprise is about subverting expectations, not screaming louder and longer than everyone else. It's an idea one wishes more marketers took to heart.
(Picture: CC 2009 by JasonRogersFooDogGiraff eBee)