Paraprosdokians – A New Look at an Old Technique

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.

Conformity – Celebration or Curse?

by Janis Patterson

There is a plague spreading through my neighborhood and no, I don’t mean the recent Covid Crazies. This new assault is visible, concrete and sublimely ugly. I live in a nice, mid-century development of nice, middle-class custom homes, mostly single story and at one time all of natural brick. The different hues and shadings of the different bricks were beautiful, and one of the most appealing facets of the area. A former cotton field, this was starkly bare land when my parents first built this home, but as people moved in they planted trees and now we live in a forest of towering trees, mainly oaks and crepe myrtles, some twice as tall as the houses they shelter.

But that is changing, and not for the better. The soaring price of real estate and congruent punishing taxes has priced a lot of the old residents out of their homes, many of which have been snapped up by developers and flippers. (My thoughts on these two categories of humanoids are not suitable for public pixilation!) Sadly, the result is that our neighborhood is subject to both the denigration and degradation of conformity, and the lovely old brick is being covered by thick layers of paint with no shading, no personality and definitely no taste.

Painted almost exclusively a dead flat white or a dark, depressing grey, these once beautiful and individual homes now resemble nothing so much as the love child of Soviet brutalist architecture and a rogue box of Legos. In the setting of gracious old trees and carefully tended gardens the result is not only ugly but jarringly distressing.

One of the flippers proudly said the painted brick trend was new, modern and made a more cohesive neighborhood. He then asked me what I thought of his newly decorated grey lump, whereupon I asked him did he mean other than the fact it was hideous? Hmmm… even in this riotous real estate market the painted brick houses seem to be moving more slowly than the traditional brick. Perhaps the concept of good taste may be taking a beating, but is not yet truly dead.

So, you are doubtless thinking, has this woman lost her mind? What does this have to do with writing?

I fully believe there is such a thing as synchronicity amongst human beings. Bringing individual architecture (and remember, this is a neighborhood of custom-custom houses, each individually designed and built) into a fast (and relatively cheap) homogeneity in order to appeal to the (theoretically) vastest amount of people is a form of seeking the lowest common denominator with no thought or regard for individual tastes. The same thing happened in publishing.

Remember before the tsunami of self-publishing became practicable? Remember the pigeonholes of genre fiction? The ever-tightening pigeonholes as dictated by traditional publishing? If you didn’t write to their exact specifications you didn’t get contracted. They always wanted (and I quote) “… the same as (insert name of currently popular author here) but different…” Forget creativity. Forget individuality. Conformity at all costs. I can remember when some publishers even put out tip sheets, dictating what should happen in a manuscript almost to the exact page.

Now I understand that traditional publishers have to make a profit – that is right and natural – but don’t the readers have rights as well, mainly the right to read whatever permutation of fiction they want? If the trads dictated that Regency romance is to be super-sexy with only the barest nod of the head to history, what happens to the reader who finds written sex boring and is fanatic about historical accuracy? Or vice-versa? What about in mysteries the dictum that a dead body should appear in the first chapter, the closer to the first page the better?

Thus self-publishing was born, and thank God for it! It has freed writers to write what they want and get it before the public, and given readers to find the exact kind of book/genre they want. Sexy psychic vampire nuns on the planet Zeon, anyone?

Yet a certain conformity has crept in there, too, as more and more writers write to market. If talking cats who live in a needlework shop and solve crimes with their telekinetic powers are suddenly big, there are star-chasing writers who will writer them, often with widely varying degrees of both success and ability. At least there will always be variety, no matter if some constantly try to write to market without regard as to if the market is right for them or not.

Also the indie author is getting shafted by more and more pirates/thieves and are even getting short shrift from the sales outlets which make money from their sales. Amazon has a monthly subscription program for readers called Kindle Unlimited, which it pushes far more than books that are ‘wide’ – i.e., available from other retailers. A self-published book written by an unknown can be so far down in the algorithms that even with a search for the exact title and author you might have to go 10 or 15 pages in to find it.

For a self-published author to be in KU they must be totally exclusive to KU, and woe betide any lone outlet which has been neglected to be removed by any retailer, no matter how small, distant or obscure. The writer will have that book pulled instantly from KU and even runs the risk of having his entire account and all his books cancelled.

Nor does it stop there. Unfairly, traditional publishers can put a book into KU even while keeping the title wide. Here conformity only seems to affect the independents. There are also pricing/payment options available to the trads that are denied to self-publishers. I cannot help but wonder if the trad books on Amazon are as plagued by the buy, read, return, refund plague which afflicts self-published books – and their authors’ incomes,  but that is a rant for another day.

We have come a long way from the tastelessness of painted brick to the pitfalls and traps of self-publishing, but it is all part and parcel of the curse of conformity which seems to be infecting our land. America was founded on the right to individuality and self-responsibility, be it business, bricks or reading material. Celebrate this by supporting your courageous and dedicated self-publishers. Go buy one of their books today. You’ll enjoy it.

On A Writer’s Responsibility…


by Janis Patterson


The other night The Husband and I were out to dinner with some of his friends whom I knew very slightly. The wives were nattering on about something so totally mind-numbing that I was half-way listening to the men. They are all sport rocketry enthusiasts – something I know very little about and personally find watching paint dry much more interesting – and were taking about the various propellants used in rocket engines.


One of them laughed about a particular one and said if they weren’t careful they could make a pretty nifty bomb using XYZ. Perhaps unwisely, I said yes, they could, but it would be foolish, as XYZ was disproportionate in explosive value versus weight/size besides being so basically unstable that it was very dangerous to use in the quantity needed to do any significant damage. Plus, it would need a special detonator that would be very easy for the police to trace.


Startled, they all looked at me as if I had lifted my sweater to reveal a suicide vest. The Husband was quick to enlighten them, saying that I was a novelist and that he had helped me research explosives for a work in progress. Obviously intrigued, they peppered me with questions about various fuels and propellants and their non-rocket related destructive capabilities, then became rather petulant when I refused to answer them as completely as they wished.


I probably could have answered all their questions sufficiently to give them a great deal of destructive knowledge, but even though these were all decent and law-abiding men, I didn’t. Why take the risk if I were wrong? Besides, I never tell everything I know, either in print or in person.
Why? Because I write novels, which should be momentary escapes for ordinary people – not technical manuals. I long ago decided that I should never put anything in a story that someone can use to hurt someone else. The idea, yes, or I wouldn’t have a story. Enough facts to have a feeling of verisimilitude, yes. A blueprint, no. There’s no way I can stop people bent on destruction from seeking out all the information they need about any kind of killing tool – and it is out there if they’re determined – but I don’t have to help them.


For example, years ago at an NRA convention I met a salesman who, on finding I was a mystery novelist, delighted in telling me how to get a ballistically clean and therefore untraceable bullet – i.e., how to kill someone with a bullet that had no rifling, no striations, no markings at all. He seemed so proud of himself and then asked me when I put that in a novel would I mention his name. Horrified, I told him NO most definitely, then begged him not to tell anyone else.


I write about crime. I want to entertain, and entertain only. I don’t want to teach or make it easy for some demented person to eliminate another without leaving clues. Sadly, that made the third way I have found to have a ballistically clean bullet. Those who want to can find the information if they search assiduously enough, but I don’t have to help them.


I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to entertain, and perhaps maybe even teach some (hopefully benign) facts. It is not our responsibility to become an instructor – and therefore, in spirit at least, an accessory.


So – I imitate my betters by using selective censorship and obfuscation. Some of my characters do horrible things, but while readers are given enough facts to know what is happening, none are able to recreate the crime. At least, not from what I write. Not everyone out there – especially on the internet – is so responsible. And that is sad.

The Truth About Idleness

by Janis Patterson

Perhaps one of the hardest things about writing is to convince non-writers that you are actually working when you’re just sitting and staring into space. Of course, part of the problem is the popular perception that writing a book consists of sitting down with pen and paper (for the romantics) or laptop (for the pragmatists and those with bad handwriting) and in a few days dashing off several thousand words, which are (1) sent to an agent grateful to receive them who sends them to a (2) publisher, who immediately responds with a large check and (3) a few weeks later the book – nicely printed and with a gorgeous cover – appears in all the bookstores while the author (4) is on a magical country-wide book-signing tour.

If you believe that, let me tell you the one about Little Red Riding Hood.

Yes, the above scenario has happened – but so rarely it isn’t even statistically viable. In the acting world it is called the ‘Cinderella syndrome’ – or by the more cynical, ‘deus ex machina.’ There’s nothing intrinsically wrong in wishing for a fairy tale publishing experience, but it’s foolish to believe in them and idiotic to expect one.

Writing is work. Writing is not only work, it is full-time work, because some part of your brain is working on your story while your hands and head are busy cleaning house or working at your day job or even while you sleep. Creation is a full-time business.

Which is why it is so irritating that when the writer does get a few minutes where nothing physical has to be done and can sit and deliberately think about his story (without actually being at the keyboard) the non-writers around either tease or castigate him for being lazy. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers” (Cornhill Magazine, July 1877) – “Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.” So, for writers especially, sitting and (visually) doing nothing is actually work.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit the home of Francis Parkinson Keyes (pronounced, I learned, as K-eyes, not like the things that open locks) in New Orleans, even though I had vowed never to set foot in that benighted city again. It was an old house (late 1700s) in the French Quarter, which meant it sat right on the street with only a narrow strip of flower bed in front and some beautiful curving stairs up to the front door. A wildly popular mid-20th-century novelist, Mrs. Keyes usually wrote in what she called her office, a converted parlor at the front of the house. She was interrupted so many times by fans who wished to meet her (and had the gall to come and knock on her front door!) that she eventually converted the former servants’ quarters in the back of the house to her office, turned the parlor back into a parlor and had her maid say she wasn’t at home.

One incident which the guide recites is of how Mrs. Keyes was sitting in her parlor office, thinking (i.e., working) when a fan walked up and knocked on the door. Mrs. Keyes answered the door and when the fan (a culture vulture clubwoman) said that she had just come to tell Mrs. Keyes how much she liked her work, Mrs. Keyes – understandably miffed at such an intrusion – politely told the woman that no, she cannot invite her in for tea and a chat about her books because she is working. The woman then became huffy, saying that she was doing no such thing, she herself saw Mrs. Keyes just sitting and staring and that surely a short interruption of an hour or so to talk to a fan was more important than doing nothing. Later in one of her memoirs Mrs. Keyes said that she doesn’t understand why people – women especially – can’t understand that an interruption in the mental process of writing is just as devastating as interrupting the cooking of an angel food cake for an hour or so and expecting it to come out perfect when the cooking process is finally completed.

My own dear mother, who was not a writer herself, never grasped that, and with every interruption would say, “I’m just going to take a minute…” As she was a skilled seamstress, I once in frustration grabbed a spool of thread and said the thread was representative of an idea. Then I pulled out a foot or so and cut it, moving the ends apart. “That’s what happens when there is an interruption,” I said. “The thread is changed and can never be the same again.” “But I just took a minute,” Mother would reply. She never got – or never acknowledged – the concept.

There have been pundits who declare that the preparation for writing – researching, plotting, experimenting with ideas, etc., including simply staring into space thinking – accounts for 90-98% of the total time necessary to write a novel. The 2-10% left is for sitting at the keyboard, which is merely transcribing. My own personal percentages vary, but nothing changes the fact that most writing is done in the head.

When other people allow it.

While I love people and am very social and outgoing, I do understand and sometimes envy those writers who have the good fortune to be able to lock themselves away – either in an office with a lock on the door or a private island – and do their work, even if it does seem to be nothing but staring into space.

What’s Old is New Again – Explorations in the Serial Format


by Janis Patterson

If you’ve been reading my various posts and blogs over time, you are probably aware that I bore very easily. That’s why I write in so many different genres and so many variations of my name. However, sometimes even variety become stale and boring, so lately other occupations had been sending their seductive lures my way.

Then came Vella. (Sounds sort of like the title of a rom-com, doesn’t it?)

For those of you who don’t know, Vella is a new platform by Amazon Kindle that is sold serial-format, i.e., chapter by chapter. (Shades of Charles Dickens, not that I am comparing myself to Charles Dickens…) Sort of like the old Saturday morning movie serials we old people remember.

Being very bored one afternoon I thought I’d give it a try… and stepped into a new world. Before going to bed – happily exhausted, I remember – I had written three episodes. Within just a short time I had finished all thirty-six episodes of what I called GHOSTS OF BELLE FLEUR and had them loaded on the Vella platform.

I had already started another story, too, a crime-and-chase fem-jep tale called THE SWABIAN AFFAIR, set in Stuttgart during the time of the Christmas market. At just nineteen episodes it’s roughly half the length of GHOSTS. Both are now available on Kindle Vella.

Quite honestly, this serial format is so much fun I started yet another story, this one set in South Carolina called THE HOUSE WITH THE RED DOOR and have fourteen episodes finished. The first couple of episodes should go live next week. (One neat thing is that the first three episodes of every Vella story are always free!)

So far all my stories have been written by my Janis Susan May persona, but I’m planning to do a murder story under my mystery name of Janis Patterson. This, of course, will require more forethought, but it will be an interesting process.

As I come to the end of each episode I have to think, “What can I do to these poor people now?” Although there does have to be a cohesive story arc from the beginning to the end, I find there is so much more latitude in this unabashedly ‘hook-ish’ serial format. I can pull all kinds of circumstances from my little bag of tricks. Usually I decide on something that is either so intriguing the reader can’t wait to get to the next installment, or something so off-the-wall and unexpected that they’re startled and can’t wait to get to the next installment.

I know that writing and reading tastes are cyclical (just look at the rebirth of the serial format!) and that what is fresh and new and fun now will eventually become tomorrow’s tired and old hat drag, but I’m going to enjoy it while I’m here. The best thing is that so far I have not been desperate enough to have a T-Rex rise from the lake and eat all the characters, as happened with a regular book not too long ago! But it’s a nice twist to have up my sleeve if needed…

Serial novels… wonder what will come back next?