What’s a paraprosdokian? It’s a literary device, a kind of word play in which the final part of a phrase or sentence is unexpected.
A paraprosdokian is a U-turn for the reader that results in surprise.
Charles Dickens began “A Tale of Two Cities” with a string of paraprosdokians:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .
Shakespeare used them, too:
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.
And here’s one from Stephen King:
“I have the heart of a small boy, in a glass jar on my desk.”
Paraprosdokians are often humorous.
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” —Grocho Marx
“If I could say a few words, I would be a better public speaker.” —Homer Simpson
“When someone close to you dies, move seats.” — Jimmy Carr
Giving your characters a paraprosdokian can spice up dialogue:
“Evening news is where they begin with ‘Good evening’, and then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.”
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”
A paraprosdokian can lead readers out of a tense situation:
“If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.”
“Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.”
Or lighten things up:
“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
“I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”
I’ve gathered the examples in this post from various sources, but you get the idea. Add paraprosdokians to your stash of literary devices. Have fun creating paraprosdokians to fit your characters’ personalities. Then use them when you want to throw your readers a curve ball—or not.
Can you spot the paraprosdokians in this short video clip from “Animal Crackers”?
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