Jo Ann Beard, one of the great non-fiction writers of our time, advises her non-fiction writing students to ask four questions of each sentence they write:
1. Is it grammatical?
2. Is it true?
3. Does it contain new information?
4. Does it include a surprise?
Note the important difference between questions 3 and 4. A surprise is more than new information; it asks us to make a mental leap. Those mental leaps are what characterize the insights of the work.
Listen to the opening phrases of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” performed here by Ella Fitzgerald and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra.
Note how each line considers Jo Ann Beard’s questions.
1. Each line is grammatical (in that we are able to make musical sense of it).
2. Each line is true (in the sense that the melody feels plainly stated, without deception).
3. Each line contains new information (in that our understanding continues to deepen).
4. Each line contains a surprise.
After one whole quart of brandy
The surprises include the downward leap on the second syllable of after and the up and down leaps on “of brandy.”
Like a daisy, I’m awake.
The second syllable of awake adds a delicious and surprising tweak.
With no Bromo Seltzer handy
The span of the upward leap on the second syllable of Seltzer is a big surprise.
I don’t even shake.
Another surprising leap between the first two syllables. Also, that last pitch provides surprise and intrigue.
My guess is that what sticks in the ears of most listeners are those surprises, especially the big leap in the third line. The surprises are sticky.
Another example . . .
Joni Mitchell's songs are full of surprises. As you listen to the first verse of "Help Me," hear how each phrase comes in for a landing on a surprising chord.
I think I'm falling
In love again ⬅︎
When I get that crazy feeling
I know I'm in trouble again ⬅︎
I'm in trouble
'Cause you're a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talking ladies man
And you love your lovin' ⬅︎
But not like you love your freedom ⬅︎
The constant changing of key creates the sensation of riding along a hilly road where each hill crests with a surprising vista. Those surprises are what make the song’s sense of discovery so palpable, so that the listeners can hang onto and learn from them.
"Does it include a surprise?" Thank you, Jo Ann Beard.
Thank you for reading.