It’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: