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Let Language Surprise!

December 7, 2013


I want language that surprises me. If I wanted language to put me to sleep, I’d read the newspaper. Okay, I read daily newspapers from time to time but only from the nineteenth century. Think I’m kidding? I’m not. Historical language surprises too, but that’s not the issue today. I want to talk about trick rhythms and turns of phrase. Because when it comes to flash or poetry, I want language so bold it hangs a frickin’ Louie.

I want flashes mormonand poems like cracker jack boxes–there’s a surprise inside!

One sure-fire method of achieving surprise is to do something unexpected with language. Purists will tell you that whatever you do with language must be organically rooted to the story, inseparable from it like helmeted boys with ties on bikes, door-knocking for your soul. You don’t usually see one without the other. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the purists. But you’ll typically find them most adamant about fiction–straight fiction.

I want to address something else. If you find it offends your sensibilities for story then let’s part amicably. I’m not Dracula eager to move my operation in a sort of reverse colonization from the Magyarian hinterlands of production into the heart of a modern metropolis in order to proselytize all your Mina’s and Lucy’s into my way of being (thanks to Stephen Arata for the metaphor; thanks only to me for straining it so unmercifully). Slide1

No. Those fangs don’t fit me so put your complaint comments away and let’s talk surprising language, shall we?

It’s a fairly simple plan. At some point, or else rhythmically–that is, periodically–your piece should use language in order to astonish.

One of the classical injunctions you might hear in a workshop is: if you place the word “rickety” next to any of the following:







…then you have missed an opportunity to surprise. Now I’ll turn to a lovely online tool–a random word generator–to show you the surprise that happens when you place “rickety” next to anything else:

her rickety dripping was…

He gave him a rickety congratulation and left.

the rickety sea

a bowl of rickety hands

She had a rickety name no one remembered.

This was done using a brand new online word generator and an older, more rickety model I keep lugging around with me in my head. What can I say? I’m fond of antiques.

Another way to achieve surprise for either prose or poetry results from turning around an overused word combination. Such combinations become ossified in idiom for a reason. They become like furniture for minds over taxed and labored. But it may delight your readers to have that chair pulled away right as they are about to take a load off. Only in non-genre writing is this turnabout pleasant. So if you’re not writing a space opera or a whodunnit, then become a word prankster. Bobby trap a well worn phrase.


If I punch in the phrase “a bowl full of” into google, I notice a lot of interesting things. First, one of the most common images I get in Google images is a bowl full of lemons. Clearly, this has become a designer’s cliche. But how often do you hear that phrase in literature or language? So now I turn to the web and Google Books. I punch in “bowl full of” with quotes and my interest dials nine and one and JUST WAITS for something to pop off.

After getting a bit deep into the offerings, away from books and sites that have BOWL FULL OF as the title, here are some of the most repeated ways that that phrase gets completed:

bowl full of water

bowl full of [food  with cherries, jelly, ice cream, and some type of nut or grain (rice) having high rates of recurrence]

bowl full of health

So what if you wanted to inject your piece with a nice jolt of linguistic wtf? Let’s go back to that random word generator and put some weird crap into our metaphorical bowls, shall we? I found where I can adjust the settings so as to only spit out nouns. Here’s what came up…

a bowl full of purpose

like a bowl full of war

a bowl full of thunder

like a bowl full of Father

{and my favorite} a bowl full of prose

Poetry can be like crackerjack trinkets. A lot of it is farthing wit. A plastic whistle or a useless spinner. Spin it and watch it spin. It’s fun, because it spins. 


Sometimes, though, you got a perfectly packaged epiphany–a jokebook or tiny little zine of adventure or, my favorite, an ambigram that smelled of molasses and made of shiny, washboard embossments. Turn it one way and it’s a pirate. Turn it the other and it’s a parrot. I luxuriated in the metaphor, the fluid ways one thing morphed into another. It was a surprise that did not diminish with repetition. And I’m still digging through the candy to find it.

cracker jack toys

From → writing tips

  1. currankentucky permalink

    Love it, let the words flow.

  2. Okay, that was pretty darn awesome. Thanks for the reminder. I was a cracker jack kid so your comparison brought back lots of rickety memories. 😉

  3. Jeremiah Walton permalink

    Hi Michael,

    Because of how damn awesome of a resource this blog is for aspiring writers, you’ve been featured at Nostrovia! Poetry, “Writing Blog Spotlight #1”. Cheers!

  4. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    You need a SURPRISE on Monday to wake you up, Fictioneers. And I know just the guy to do it right!

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