Expect the Unexpected

and the sea will come to kiss meIt’s a hugely arrogant thing, to expect the attention of a reader for over three hundred pages. Any writer worth reading is aware of that. Sympathetic characters can take you only so far, a good hook can do some good, but ultimately, what most readers need is to know that the story is not one they could make up themselves.

This is the great gift of the unexpected.

Readers are told a story they could never guess, and the writer’s job is to make that credible and, when it works, make it the obvious answer, a solution so credible that the reader knows that of course this is what happened. Of course! With all of these characters and these factors in place, the rain, the car with no petrol, the gun with a single bullet—this is exactly what would happen.

Making the unexpected inevitable is the job of the writer.

Description is nice, observations are good, resonant depictions of familiar situations are great, but what really separates a good book from a book that stays in the mind and feels, when remembered, like it was something that happened to a cousin of a friend of yours, is the inevitability of the unexpected.

But what is unexpected? Giggling during a shoot-out. Love in a bank robbery. Kindness in a police station. They are unexpected but not brilliant because they are on the same emotional trajectory: love and hate, kindness and brutality, giggles and guns. What is truly unexpected, the curve ball that comes from nowhere to hit you on the side of the head, is not at all on that same trajectory.

Here’s the equation for it:

First of all, take the scenario: suppose it’s a bad guy in a situation. A bad guy in a situation will do the bad thing. The readers know this. They can tell themselves that story, they don’t need three hundred pages of investment to get them there.

So the bad guy does the good thing. But these are sophisticated readers—crime readers are greedy readers and know the form well. They’re expecting the unexpected. Bad guys doing the good thing isn’t that unexpected, unless it’s one of those protofascist crime novels that insist that criminals are a different breed than the God-fearing, good-living rest of us. (These writers should be made to go and live on an island with one another for a year to see how many of them turn to cannibalism.)

So the bad guy does a funny thing. That’s unexpected. The bad guy does an omelette. The bad guy, faced with an urgent call to arms, does nothing.

That’s when the reader in me drops the book to my lap, catches a breath and thinks what the f**k? I look at the person next to me, want to tell him what happened, tell him how surprised I am, ask what he thinks about it, what made the bad guy do nothing? What’ll happen because of that? But I realize I’m a hundred pages in and the story’s too long to explain, and really I just need to give the person next to me the book and talk about it afterward.

And so I pick up the book again, and I read on . . .

Denise Mina is the author of Slip of the Knife, The Dead Hour, Field of Blood, Deception, and the Garnethill trilogy, the first installment of which won her the John Creasey Memorial Prize for best first crime novel. She lives in Glasgow.