Do you remember the last book you read that made you feel breathless to turn the next page? Have you ever been so surprised by a plot twist that it left you reeling … or delighted? You know how much I love plotting, planning, and outlining, but many writers are concerned those steps will leave their work feeling dry and formulaic. One way to make sure your writing is fresh and new? Use serendipity!
“I was really looking for something else!” the professor yelled into the phone … “Every time I run across something, it’s because I was looking for something else, which I consider real discovery. It’s when you don’t expect it that you really discover something.”
(You should really read that article, here. Very cool!)
The professor’s quote got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring that kind of discovery and excitement to our projects? And how do we make these sorts of discoveries *on purpose*? Can we do anything to increase our chances? How about engineered serendipity, when we can control the first actions, but still get to experience surprise results! Here are a few easy ways to bring more joy and serendipity to your writing:
Always, A*L*W*A*Y*S, bring a notebook or smart phone with you to capture ideas and inspiration. (Remember the writer’s notebook? It’s important!!) Be ready to gather and record insights and revelations at any moment: at the farmer’s market, in the car while listening to a podcast (hit pause and pull over–don’t be too enthusiastic :-0 ), waiting in line at the tea house, wherever!
Thrift Shop/Yard Sale/Junk Store
In his book, Share Your Work, Austin Kleon refers to an experiment performed using Ebay and a bunch of random figurines, chotchkes, and doodads bought for a few coins at junk shops. Amazingly, when the sellers “made up” (lied!) an interesting back story for each item, buyers were happy to spend exponentially more than the value of the item.
This tells us two things: 1.) As writers, we should never forget the power of story. Everyone craves it. It’s Truth–even when it isn’t true. And, 2.) Sometimes you can build a wonderful story around a random piece of junk. It can become a token.
Go to your favorite junk shop–or, maybe even better, a sale or shop you’ve never visited–and find one little item that sparks your interest. What is it? Then find a way to slip it into your work in progress. I double-dog dare you!
If you’re feeling stuck or uninspired, take a few minutes for blackout poetry–even if you don’t think you’re a poet. Grab a newspaper, magazine, old book (from the aforementioned junk shop, maybe), and a black sharpie. Draw a box around the words you like, then fill in the space between them, “blacking out” the other words.
(Here’s Austin Kleon again, this time in a TEDtalk about his blackout poetry…and serendipity!!)
The Plot Box
This is fun to do with a group. Gather a bunch of notecards, post-it’s, or slips of paper and a smallish box or canister. (A gallon zipper bag will do in a pinch.) Have participants label each note card with a category: object, person, place, problem, or big goal. Then have them swap cards with other participants. Set the timer for fifteen minutes and, on the back of each card, write down whatever the label calls for. For example, if the card says, “Object” you might write “Diamond Ring.” When the timer goes off, fold the cards in half and toss them into the box. Close the lid, give it a good shake, and have fun drawing out odd combinations. I did this with a class of teens and the prompt turned out to be a magician protagonist, who’s at odds with a librarian, and whose car breaks down on the way to a graduation… Yeah. Serendipity, ya’ll.
If you think your work in progress could use some livening-up, see if you can weave in an unexpected surprise. Remember, if you’re not having fun writing it, it’s likely your reader will be bored, too. Let yourself have a little play time, and use serendipity in your work.
NOW YOU: Have you discovered a way to use serendipity in your writing? Share your ideas in the comments section!