My wife and I are animal lovers; dogs, cats, and birds are as much a part of our family as the humans. Pained when our pets are injured or not feeling well, we are crushed when they pass.
Years ago we had a dog I had named Nirvana before Linda and I met—we called her Nerd for short. I cuddled and whispered to Nirvana as the poison the vet administered brought about a gentle death and eased her suffering.
A couple weeks later, her ashes were returned to us. Wiping tears we were not ashamed to shed, a letter from the Veterinary Hospital accompanied Nerd’s remains:
We share in your loss of Nirvana.
I have often wondered if the person who wrote the note saw the humor which started us laughing for long minutes despite our grief. Perhaps the note writer thought no more of it than, “We share in your loss of Rex,” or maybe they had studied eastern religion and philosophy, chuckling softly when penning the sentiment that we had all lost Enlightenment.
Regardless of the writer’s intention, that was a zinger—something unexpected and powerful on many levels.
I saw Kurt Vonnegut interviewed once, and he said when he sat down to write, his goal was to write one joke—one zinger—each day.
The thing about zingers—a line that shocks, intrigues, or humors—is they need to flow organically from the prose; otherwise, they seem forced or added as an after-thought, and will conjure rolling eyes and deep sighs.
The way to make zingers possess an organic feel is to have the thought, the word, or the actions derive from the characters and the plot.
The other thing about zingers is they need to be administered sparingly. Vonnegut was an exception, as was Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because their stories are parody. Other types of stories require less zingers (in number, not in power), and should be used only when appropriate and natural—infrequency adds to the surprise and makes each unique.
A zinger causes a strong emotion, and if done well, enhances the reader’s bond to your tale.
Imagine a hysterical woman telling her husband something terrible happened; after long moments, he still doesn’t know what she is upset about. He slaps her. Unexpected action-zingers can impart something about the characters and their relationship to each other.
Think about movies you have seen: the zinger at the end of The Usual Suspects is the identity of the here-to-for unknown antagonist; the classic last line of Casablanca surprises by being down-played between the two characters, Rick and the French Captain, Louie. In literature, O. Henry is known for his zinger endings. Surely others come to mind, a shocking instance that prompts memory and emotion long after.
A good place for a zinger, if not at the end of the story, is at the end of a chapter. A zinger will add to a cliff-hanger most admirably.
I find zingers usually appear in my first draft, the heated time when blood is rushing, fingers are dancing across the keys, and creation is fresh and vibrant. Often while reading the first draft, I see a phrase, piece of dialogue, or an action that jumps out and requires zinger status. There are times I have to massage the sentence to illustrate exactly what I want to say, but the kernel begins in the first draft. The difficulty is to make the zinger a natural outcropping of a scene. If not natural with a kind of it must be here surety, out it goes, added to my snippet file.
I can’t force a zinger. If something is lacking in a scene, a zinger won’t fix it because whatever is wrong lies in the foundation—a zinger is like a fine stained glass window whose placement dramatically adds to the aura of a house, a sparkle to the drab.
When you’re reading, watch for zingers—those moments when you stop, shake your head, and say, “wow.” They’re there, and you’ll know when you see them. Look at your own writing and see what jumps out at you, the dialogue or action that convinces you that, indeed, you are a writer.
See you on the next page,
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