Writing Prompts: The Unexpected

SurrealismWhen I open a book I’m always hoping to be surprised.  It’s what I look for above all else.  Whether it’s in the narrative, or the language an author employs in its construction, I don’t ever want to know where I’m going in advance.

What I crave is uncertainty—that rush of possibility.  I want to be in free fall through a text.  I want to turn a corner and end up at some place unexpected.  Then take a few more steps, and enter somewhere stranger still. It’s this sense of discovery, of stumbling headfirst into the unfamiliar, that appeals to me most about surrealist and magical realist writing.

In its most interesting variations, the reader is discovering a space whose strange nature extends beyond the material.  The fantastical elements push beyond the physical realm, into something deeper.  These spaces, after all, are purely linguistics in nature.  They are built from and sustained by language, and, as such, basic laws of physics—our understanding of probability, space, and time; all the disparate threads woven through the fabric of reality are suddenly made malleable.

When an author steps outside the bounds of realism, their own self-expression is given free reign to imprint the world they are creating.  And when done well, we as readers travel these strange new landscapes with awe, terror, or often both.

It’s the existential dread of Joseph K. traversing a legal bureaucracy he can’t comprehend.

It’s Borges’ librarian wandering infinite stacks.

It’s the village of Macondo collapsing into windblown sheets of paper.

A major challenge I face as a writer is my own nature to second-guess myself.  There’s a little voice in me that’s always doubting the words I put down, and I find it’s loudest when I try to write in the realist mode.

“No, it wouldn’t be like that,” it says.

“No, that’s not realistic.”

“What are you doing?”

“What do you know?”

It’s exhausting and unproductive.  But it’s also hard to dismiss, as my total life experience is confined to a relatively short amount of time spent in a relatively small slice of a very big and long-lived blue patch of space dirt.  Now a combination of research and imagination can always push my work outside those confines, but only to a degree.  The truth is I can never really know anything that lies outside myself.

This is a paralyzing thought.  One I find hard not to get trapped in.

But the best method I’ve found to avoid the trap is to sidestep realism altogether—to give myself and my stories over to radical acts of imagination, in order to create work expressing the same sense of discovery I value so much as a reader.

I find that little nay-saying voice can’t shut me down as swiftly if the world I’m building is an internal one, an expression of thoughts, feelings, and patterns that live first and foremost in my head.

So I ask you, as fellow writers, to treat yourself to a quick trip into a reality you’ve never been to before. Look inside yourself, dig around, and try to discover something unexpected.  Take a step into a new space, one that stands apart from the one outside your door.


All your life a small wooden box has rested on a high shelf in your childhood home.  You passed it every day, but never paid it much attention.  It is innocuous, worn and undecorated.  It fits comfortably in your open hand.  The box is locked, but you have no key.  One day you hear a sound coming from the box.  A kind of rumble.  A growing din. It sounds like everything and nothing.  You see light pouring through the keyhole.  Suddenly, the latch breaks.  The lid flies open.  You look inside.


You fall asleep on a train and miss your destination.  When you wake up, the train is stopped at an unfamiliar station.  Miles and miles of desert lie all around you.  You step off to take a quick look around, but as soon as you do, the train departs, disappearing into the dunes.  You are alone except for one stranger waiting in silence, holding up a sign with your name on it.



Photo_Bob Schofield Bob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June, Man Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.