Has this happened to you?
You’re driving to work. The usual journey. On the highway.
You’re listening to the radio and thinking about the day ahead.
30 miles later you suddenly realize you’re at your exit. You haven’t noticed the other exits you passed. You’ve barely heard what they’re talking about on the radio. As if your car has been on autopilot.
The same thing happens with your readers. Their minds wander off. They’re lulled to sleep.
In his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, psychologist Dr Daniel Goleman suggests that a reader’s mind typically wanders off 20% to 40% of the time.
So, how can you keep your readers engaged?
Surprise refocuses attention
When reading, our brains try predicting what comes next.
When those predictions prove right, a text feels rather boring. However, when the predictions turn out wrong, readers are jolted awake and stay more engaged.
Moreover, as readers, we like surprises. Jean-Louis Dessalles, a professor in cognitive science, asked people to read a series of miniature stories. Each story was cut off before the end, and readers were asked which ending they’d prefer. The most unexpected endings were preferred.
Surprise happens on a more granular level, too. Research by Katherine DeLong and others at the University of California showed that we predict what words are to come before reading them. Even a surprising word combination or an unexpected metaphor can pique readers’ interest and keep them engaged.
So, below follow 4 ways to use surprise in your writing and keep your readers captivated …
1. Break through habitual word choice
As writers, we tend to follow well-worn word patterns.
Fresh bread smells delicious, old bread is stale. Hikers roam, shoppers stroll.
How can we break through such patterns?
Change the scene. Borrow a word from a completely different area. For instance, the following sentence is rather meh:
To inject some surprise, change the scene. For instance, if you’d discuss food rather than a book, which words would you use?
The bread was stale. The steak was chewy. The vegetables were bland.
You could use those words to describe the boring book:
Here’s another example of a meh sentence:
If you’d talk about food rather than a blog post, which words would you use?
The cake was scrumptious. It was lipsmackingly good. I devoured it. I gobbled it up.
So, you could change the sentence about the blog post to:
To break through habitual word patterns, don’t take editing too seriously. Instead, nurture a sense of play. See what happens if you pick a different word.
I like borrowing words from cooking but you can try other areas, too, such as sports, theater, traveling, or anything else you know a lot about.
How to hotwire your words (and make your writing sparkle) >>
2. Make up words
You can inject even more fun into your word choice by making up new words or expressions.
For instance, Shakespeare has invented hundreds of words including about 300 words starting with un-, such as unaware, uncomfortable, undress, unearthly, and unreal. (Are there any other unwords we can make up?)
Shakespeare has also made up expressions including: I’ve not slept a wink, in my heart of hearts, the world is my oyster, and it’s Greek to me.
Weird, isn’t it?
Now all those expressions feel almost cliché, and they’re not likely to wake up readers. Language evolves.
But we can use Shakespeare’s trick, and make up our own expressions. For instance, Apple’s copywriters make up new words regularly:
New camera. New design. Newphoria.
Focus‑pocus, magical new portraits.
Sometimes, they just change the spelling:
Phantastic Phototonic photos.
Apple tends to make small adjustments to existing words so it’s not too hard to guess their meaning: Euphoria becomes newphoria (euphoria about something new); hocus-pocus becomes focus-pocus (the magic of zoom).
Be careful. Too many unusual words can make a text difficult to read. Go for just a sprinkling.
3. Create an unexpected analogy
You can also jolt your readers awake with vivid, fresh metaphors.
For instance, Raymond Chandler makes his readers pay attention by using creative, sometimes crazy similes. This is from Farewell, My Lovely:
Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
And from The Long Good-Bye:
He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.
An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach.
Vivid imagery is not just for fiction writers. For instance, Mark Manson is a self-help author. His most famous blog post is The Art of Not Giving a Fuck (he turned it into a bestselling book). In the middle of his blog post, a weird expression turns up:
Now, while not giving a fuck may seem simple on the surface, it’s a whole new bag of burritos under the hood.
A bag of burritos? What does that even mean?
Some metaphors and analogies are overused. For instance: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The devil is in the details. She’s as busy as a bee. Such faded imagery doesn’t wake up your reader.
To keep your readers awake, be a little more creative. Make up your own metaphors and weird expressions.
How to use the persuasive power of metaphors >>
4. Set up a pattern, then break it
Comedians are experts at unexpected turns, and one trick they use is the comic triple.
Threes form a pattern. So, if you want to surprise your readers, create the pattern and then surprise with an unexpected third element.
In his book The Art of Witty Banter, Patrick King gives the following examples:
You know what my favorite part about coffee is? The energy boost, the aroma, and the yellowing effect on your teeth.
And from Mark Twain:
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
And from comedian Chris Rock:
There are only 3 things women need in life: food, water, and compliments.
Remember Mark Manson’s burritos?
In an article about relationships, he mentions 5 things where you should look for compatibility in life partners: 1. Life priorities (Where to you see yourself in 5 years?); 2. Preferences (What do you enjoy doing on a day off?); 3. Fundamental beliefs (Is one of you anti-vac and the other pro?); 4. Values (Who do you want to be?).
And then he breaks the pattern with a surprising 5th area to look for compatibility:
Favorite flavor of burrito – It all comes back to burritos. Always.
Burritos! Of course!
To make up your own comic triple, consider something you love, define two reasons why you love it plus one downside: I love writing because I love playing with words; I like improving my thinking; and I can also practice for the procrastination championships.
An unexpected twist can add a sense of fun, even in an article about a serious topic.
Make writing fun
If you feel bored by what you’re writing, rest assured: Your readers will get bored, too.
So, try to inject a sense of fun.
Play with your words. Try a different writing technique.
Your readers will sense you’ve enjoyed yourself while writing.
And that sense of joy is contagious.