Gobsmacking the reader

Someone, in fact several people, have said that there are only a few basic plots in any story; boy meets girl, the quest, the hero’s journey, revenge, etc. So why do people read fiction? One reason is for the surprise; the twist; the unexpected development. The “didn’t see that one coming” moment.

In my series, the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries, I like to surprise the reader by setting up a scene in where the reader sits back and expects things to play out a certain predictable way, but something startlingly unexpected occurs. The Brits call this “gobsmacking”. (Gotta love the versatility of the English language) One way I like to do this is by having a character introduce a completely unexpected perspective. In Death and the Blind Tiger, Allison Hurlock gets invited to the Algonquin round table in New York by Dorothy Parker and is dazzled by the New York literati in all their quipping, acid-tounged glory. For magazine writer and aspiring author Allison, this is heady stuff, and she tells husband Max how she wants to be accepted by these famous and clever people. The next day she returns early to the Algonquin Hotel dining room, anxious to ingratiate herself with her heroes. At this point, the reader assumes the rest of the scene will consist of Allison trying to be accepted, but that’s not what happens. A waiter appears and is visibly concerned when she says she wants to sit at the round table. He tells her how self centered and cruel the round table denizens can be, then apologizes.

“Well, I’m afraid I’ve spoken out of turn,” the waiter continued, blushing slightly. “Of course you can be seated there if you want. I just thought you didn’t seem like one of them. I know people, you see. After a while you get a sense about people in this job. I can tell you have a kind heart, and I guess I was just trying to keep you away from people that don’t. I’m sorry.”

Allison watches him go, decides she doesn’t want to be like those shallow people, then turns and leaves.

In Death in Unlikely Places, Max teams up with a reluctant local sheriff in Florida and they pass a labor gang of black men supervised by overseers on horse back. By this time, it is clear that the chief is not happy to have Max along, and the reader expects some stereotypical southern-sheriff-meets-Yankee-outsider-and-tells-him-how-things-are dialogue. (After all, this is the 1920s) Instead, Sheriff Atley is genuinely outraged and grumbles about unscrupulous labor contractors taking advantage of local blacks. He tells Max how he once let a fugitive escape after giving him five dollars. Max is amazed.

“And don’t you be telling anybody,” said Atley. “I got a reputation to keep up.”

“I don’t see how a sense of justice is necessarily a handicap for a lawman,” said Max.

“You’d be surprised. I been a cop since I got out of high school. It’s all I ever wanted to be, but I wanted to chase criminals, not victims. If that means looking the other way once in a while, well…”

Max smiled. “Sheriff, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”

Maybe the best example of gobsmacking the reader occurs in Death at the Lighthouse, where Allison is researching an article on spiritualism and attending seances. She is amazed by the ghostly manifestations she witnesses with local medium Madam De Sousa, until she encounters Houdini himself (it all makes sense in the book) who explains the simple conjuring tricks involved. Feeling she has been hoodwinked by the obviously fake medium, Allison confronts Madam DeSousa. The reader, expecting a storm of Allison’s righteous indignation, expects either a shouting match or the wilting of Madam DeSousa, but that’s not what happens. When Allison accuses Madam DeSousa of being a fake, the medium coolly replies, “Is that so bad?”

“Of course it is!” Allison answers. “It’s fraud.”

Madam DeSousa then shows Allison a book with a list of her clients, explaining the terrible heartache each is experiencing and how desperate they were to contact deceased loved ones for some sort of closure. Madam DeSousa then states her case.

“Allison, you are right. I am a fake. I use tricks and psychology to bring comfort to people that are crying out for it. I give them closure so they can live the rest of their lives in peace. I know they are not really in communication with their loved ones, but who would tell them that? Would you have the heart to crush someone’s hopes by telling them there is no real way to communicate with the dead? So I ask you once more; is what I do so bad?”

“But you make money off of other people’s misery.”

“No, Allison. I make money relieving other people’s misery. Isn’t that what a doctor does?”

“A doctor cures people…”

“And so do I. My clients come to me crushed and distraught, and they leave with peace of mind they could get nowhere else….. If you expose me, where will the people in that book go for relief? Who will sooth them in the depths of their grief? Who will help fill the terrible void in their hearts?”

Now the reader may not fully buy the medium’s justification for her deceptions, but it is certainly a different and unexpected perspective, and this gobsmacking, I hope, makes the reader think a little.

After all, why read anything if you can’t expand your mind a bit?

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