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Surprise Me! The Art of Keeping a Reader’s Attention

Surprise Me! The Art of Keeping a Reader’s Attention

Predictability kills attention. It makes you nod off or close the web page or put down the book, never to pick it up again.

Surprise, on the other hand, rivets you to your chair.

“Engage people with what they expect. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Attention feeds on surprise.

The Joker makes a pencil disappear.

Bruce Willis realizes he’s dead.

That horrific scene at the farmhouse in Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road.

The unpredictability of these moments makes our mouths drop open. We laugh. Or we gasp. And we recommend the movie or share the article on Facebook or Twitter.Now, few of us can create an ending as unpredictable and genius as The Sixth Sense. Luckily, we don’t need to (but if you can, please do).

But we do need to surprise our readers.

“The secret to humor is surprise.”


Sometimes all it takes is to insert an unexpected image into a series of similar words.

“There are only three people who should use bobbers:  six year olds, 87 year olds, and Huck Finn.”

Can’t find the right word? Make one up. Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words, many of which are commonly used today: “hobnob,” “madcap,” and even “excitement.”

Ogden Nash once offered:


While not exoccoli,

Is within an innach

Of being spinach.

Clever. Bonus points for using “innach of being spinach” in a conversation today.

In a post I wrote about a car we once owned that nearly killed me, I was trying to describe the noise a car makes when it’s low on power-steering fluid. I couldn’t do it. But then it came to me that it sounded remarkably like the screech that Godzilla made in the movies. Since it was a blog post, it was easy to insert a sound file of Godzilla’s roar. I think it worked.

So, be unpredictable. Surprise us.

It’ll compel us to keep reading.

Questions: When you write, how do you keep the reader’s attention? What books have you read that surprised you often? Leave a comment below.

Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire


  1. Zelma

    Not to beat a dead horse but how’s that prospectus coming along for the humor book? This world definately needs more humor.

    • Greg Lhamon

      Ha! I’m working on it! Thanks.


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