Unexpected Detail In Fiction

Some of the most powerful details in fiction are the ones we don’t expect. We might call this ironic detail, or perhaps we should just stick with ‘surprise’. Good stories are all about surprise.


Expected detail: The smell of urine on a person is disgusting.

Unexpected detail:

A slight but persistent smell of urine […] would have disgusted me on a woman but […] seemed in his case not just forgivable but somehow an expression of ancient privilege. When I went into the bathroom after he had been there, it was like the lair of some mangy, still powerful beast.

— Alice Munro, “Cortes Island


Expected reaction: When you and your family are involved in a car accident, you are pleased to find everyone alive.

Unexpected reaction:

“But nobody’s killed,” June Star said with disappointment

— Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find


Header photo by Roseanna Smith

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