Think Sheep! (Taking Your Writing Beyond the Expected)

Monday, December 30, 2019
A couple of weeks ago, I stood in a festively decorated family room at the home of a choir member, and from the kitchen beyond, I heard someone talking about sheep. And so I glanced out the family room window and saw five or six sheep, artfully placed in the backyard. They were all curled up on the grass, five white ones and one lone black sheep. How perfect, I thought, gazing into the yard as the early evening light fell around their peaceful sheep faces. It looked like a picture right out of the Cotswolds in rural England and I was pretty impressed with the lengths that my host had gone to, decorating even into the yard with all these statues of sheep.

I tore myself away from the window and stepped into the kitchen, where another picture window looked out onto this serene scene and I couldn’t help stealing another glance. When suddenly, a sheep glanced back. It turned its head and looked right at me! And then a ram sauntered past the window. I gasped out loud because these sheep were alive!

“They’re alive!” I shouted, sounding a little like Dr. Frankenstein. My host—and quite a few other people at the party—laughed out loud at me. They’d heard the whole story, that my friend had brought in the sheep to eat the English ivy. But I had not heard about the ivy-eating sheep (well, except for the song where little lambs eat ivy but honestly, I didn’t know that was a real thing, either) so it was completely unexpected for me to see live sheep in a backyard in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in the metro Atlanta area.

Wow. Anyway, I knew then that I would write about sheep for my last 2019 post. Because I don’t remember what we ate that evening or what fancy finery anyone wore but I remember those sheep. I remember that feeling of surprise, that jolt of the unexpected, and that’s what a good idea is all about.

Whether you are scratching your head, trying to come up with your next novel, or you’re pitching an article to a magazine editor, or you’re wondering why your story never wins any contests, you can benefit from a little sheep-thinking. That is, take a look at your idea, what you’re writing about, and ask yourself if anyone—a publisher, an editor, or a reader—is going to be surprised.

I mean, of course, surprised in the right and unexpected way. It’s no good to just throw something wild and crazy into a story to shock a reader. And sometimes, some of the best surprises in a story build tension in a quiet and subtly mesmerizing way. You want the reader to feel an internal gasp, to experience that "I did not see that coming" moment.

And if you’re pitching an idea for an article, sheep-thinking means using a new and unexpected way to explore a somewhat everyday topic.

A new year will be here in just a few days—a new decade, actually!—and now's the time to toss the old and embrace the new. Think sheep, my friends, and make your readers gasp with surprise at the unexpected ram that shows up in your writing!

~Cathy C. Hall wishing you happy writing in 2020!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I would have been surprised by the live sheep, but I don't think I would or could have made a connection to that experience and writing.

THAT is the mark of a gifted writer. A talented writer can make the ordinary extraordinary. A writer with some flair can make a connection between an experience and a process.

May 2020 be an incredible year for you...

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Too funny! :)

What I like about this unexpected twist, and what I think is necessary in a story, is that the surprise, etc ultimately makes sense, that it has context. The sheep were there for a reason, not just because they - or the author - felt like it. :)

Wishing you all the best in 2020, Cathy!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Ha! They're alive! This is such a great post, Cath, and it's exactly what's important to include in a piece of writing: that unexpected detail.

I recently took a flash class where one of the assignments was to find the unexpected detail and use it to fuel the piece. I created a few different short memoirs, and I discovered that memory is exactly like you said--you don't remember the food or what people wore, but you remember what stands out. It's usually a great detail to use as a metaphor for the entire piece. The sheep could reflect your interiority, how you were feeling. It's a strong image for a flash piece. I hope you write it. :)

Wishing you happy writing in 2020! :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Aw, thanks, y'all! And I wouldn't be at all surprised to find sheep cropping up in a novel sometime soon. :-)

(See what I did there? Surprise, sheep, cropping up in a novel?

Um, yeah. I should probably quit now instead of ra-a-a-a-m-bling. Hahahahhaa!)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I love the surprise sheep! And also the reminder that the surprise has to make sense. The other, of course, is much eaiser.

Linda O'Connell said...

You are completely right! Your comments convinced me to rewrite a story about a moose on the loose. I can imagine your surprise when the sheep made eye contact and moved. Even your very own responses to readers are funny! LOL Happy New Year

Pat Wahler said...

Another terrific post (not to mention the adorable image of sheep in the backyard). As a reader, the element of surprise or the unexpected is what delights, intrigues, and keeps me turning pages.

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