Break Patterns To Intrigue Readers

I was recently reminded of the importance of patterns as we drove home to Texas from Albuquerque. I found myself on a frontage road near Sweetwater. I know the rule about yielding on a frontage road in Texas. It’s so confounding that I typically give a PSA to friends or family driving from out-of-state. (I know, by now you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with writing. Bear with me.)

Simply put, if you are driving a frontage road you must yield to traffic entering the highway from the frontage road or leaving the highway to enter the frontage road. That’s fairly straightforward. What makes this rule confounding is that often there is a yield sign, but just as often there isn’t. You’re expected to know that even if there’s no sign you must yield. So if you’re new to Texas and driving a frontage road where yield signs are posted, you might infer from this pattern that if there’s no sign you’re not required to yield. You might find out the hard way. Say you’re on a two-way frontage road and an approaching car crosses your path to take the exit ramp. Could get ugly.

Patterns, rightly or wrongly, set up expectations. There’s more to the yield sign than the word “yield.” If you’ve seen signs posted at exit and entrance ramps, you might logically expect that the absence of a sign means you’re not required to yield.

Now that I’ve run this example into the ground, how can patterns enrich your writing? Break a pattern to defy readers’ expectations.

Take characterization, for instance. Let’s say you’ve defined Janet as fastidious about herself and her home. In the process of cleaning windows, she stands out in the street to look for streaks she can’t see from the inside. (This woman was my neighbor.) She won’t leave the house without being perfectly coiffed and made-up. She washes dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Your reader gets it. Then one day she tucks disheveled hair under her husband’s John Deere gimme cap and leaves home with the bed unmade and dirty dishes on the table. Whoa! This departure from Janet’s pattern of behavior upsets the reader’s expectations and piques her curiosity. She’s eager to know what possessed Janet, and the only way to find out is to read on.

Breaking a pattern can work with setting, also. Along a dirt road, there’s a never-ending row of shacks, their roofs sagging, their postage-stamp yards overgrown with weeds and littered with old sinks and busted chairs. A mangy yellow dog drinks water from a ditch. A barefoot kid zigs and zags on a rusty bike way too big for him. The road curves. There stands a collonaded mansion, its vast grounds and Monet-inspired gardens surrounded by an iron fence. Your reader rounds that curve with an expectation of more of the same only to be struck by a most unlikely image. Now the reader has questions. Who are these people? What accounts for this juxtaposition of wealth and poverty? How do such apparently different people co-exist? If this bit of setting is significant, you’ll eventually provide answers, but it’s possible that the setting exists only to color the story. In any case, you’ve given the reader motivation to continue reading. And isn’t that your goal?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Sometimes stories cry out to be told in such loud voices that you write them just to shut them up.

–Stephen King

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