Expect the Unexpected: Turning

“…he could see the blackbirds, and small hedge-hopping sparrows, a single spotted-breasted thrush in the boughs of a nearby tree. Fat Charlie though that a world in which birds sang in the morning was a normal world, a sensible world, a world he didn’t mind being a part of.
    Later, when birds were something to be afraid of, Fat Charlie would still remember that morning as something good and something fine, but also as the place where it all started.” ~from the end of Chapter One, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

In poetry, at least in my understanding of poetry, there is the idea that each line’s responsibility is to either reenforce or to alter the meaning of the preceding line – it makes the poem surprising, leading the reader in one direction and then moving it somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.

To give a far too simplistic example – Shakespeare Sonnet CXXX:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red

These two lines reenforce each other. The chick is not that awesome.

But sonnets hinge on a turn – the final lines switch up the meaning of all the lines that went before. The first sets of lines create this snowball effect: my mistress ain’t that good lookin’, she’s not that sweet, and so on.

Then Shakespeare turns the meaning of the poem:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.”

Meaning she’s the rockinest rock star because she’s herself.

I think of this as a ‘turn’ because, well, it turns. (I’m a simple creature.) This kind of thing is easy to see in poetry because that’s one of the simpler ways in which poetry works.

Fiction, by it’s nature a different beast, can still benefit from turning. It’s not something that a fiction writer can do with every sentence because, damn, that’ll hurt a reader’s neck from all the back-and-forth.

Neil Gaiman is very, very good at the fiction turn.

Take the opening quote from Anansi Boys. He talks about birds as a normal piece of the world. And they are. But then, to add intrigue, there’s that awesome clause “when birds were something to be afraid of.” He contradicts everything that he’s describing around that. It’s jolting. It’s effective. I read that sentence over and over again, wallowing in the idea of birds turning into something to be feared.

You find the turns throughout Gaiman. He’s all about throwing in the unexpected note. Even his main character, Fat Charlie, is not fat. There’s a show dog named Goofy. Little splashes like this wake the reader up, make the reader focus. And you want your readers paying attention.

Have you guys come across any instances of turning? Any authors or stories that you remember because of the way it shifted?




3 responses to “Expect the Unexpected: Turning”

  1. F.T. Bradley: Avatar

    I love how much there is to learn from these passages. Fires up new ideas.

    I can think only of plot-type turns like this–the characters you thought were innocent, then turned out to be guilty (or vice versa). The Lincoln Lawyer book did a good job with that. Sort of creepy…

  2. Debbie Avatar

    I think that it may be the reason my favorite authors are my favorite authors. Those sentences that make you go back and reread a couple times. Often because of that turn at the end.

    From The Night Circus: The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.

    Makes you realize something different is going on here. Love that.

  3. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Hmm, turns… I'll have to think. Thank goodness you didn't post anything more spoilerish than that – I'm almost finished American Gods and about to start Anansi Boys.

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