by Janis Patterson
As some of you may know, I’m on my way out of the country for my Very Big Vacation… which I’ll be writing about in my new newsletter when I come home. If you’re interested, you can subscribe from my website. However – I didn’t want to neglect this blog or you, so here is an essay I did several years ago and which I still quite like!
I’ll admit, I didn’t know what a paraprosdokian was until a friend sent me a list of them. She’s always sending me jokes and funnies and, I’ll admit, I laughed heartily on reading them. Then the writing brain took over (doesn’t it always?) and I read them again, finally realizing that they were a lesson all in themselves.
By definition, a paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. Here are a few of the best ones :
— I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
— I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.
— To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
— A bus station is where a bus stops. A railway station is where a train stops. My desk is a work station.
— You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive more than once.
— The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas.
— To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
— Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
You see what I mean? Each starts out with a statement that gives you an idea – then the second part puts an entirely new spin on the idea, usually turning your perception of it 90 degrees in a different direction. In other words, a turning point.
In real life, with real people, I’ll bet that most of us like a smooth stream – learn, meet, love, prosper, happy every after with no catastrophes or dead bodies or evil villains or whatnot. Such a progression is comforting and happy – and boring, at least from a story point of view. In our books, whether mystery or sci-fi or romance or whatever, we love to torture our characters and that is best done by surprise and change.
The character we trust turns out to be the villain. The safe house isn’t. The clue that proves the hero innocent is false. (See where I’m going?) A single incident pops up and suddenly the entire story is careening off in a different direction. Could we call these ‘plot paraprosdokians?’ Sure – if we can remember that tongue twister of a word! (You’re on your own there.)
Sometimes these plot twists can happen in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or, in some rare cases, a chapter or more. It depends, as so much does, on the style of the writer and on the story itself, But they must happen, or your story becomes a sweet, linear telling of events that have no excitement, no challenge, and very probably no real interest.
For example, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. He calls the police. The police find he has nothing to do with the body. Bob goes on and lives his life. Snoooooooze! Even though, if I were Bob, that’s what I’d want to happen in real life, but it makes for a boring and unsellable story.
By contrast, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. The body is that of a fraternity brother from his college days, one who ostensibly died in a frat house fire years before. Also, unbeknownst to Bob, the body was Bob’s new wife’s brother.
See? You can go on and on, turning each plot twist in on itself, each time giving your story more depth and complexity, as well as more danger and higher stakes for your protagonist.
Deepen your plotting – become a practicing paraprosdokianist. I think I just broke my spell-check. Whether you can spell it or not, though it works. Give it a try.