One of the most important elements of a story is the reader’s expectations. I’m not talking about guessing what readers want or trying to write for the market. Writer’s must find the balance between fulfilling the readers’ expectations and surprising them in pleasing ways. If the reader’s expectations are fulfilled too exactly, they will get bored because they can always tell what is going to happen next, but if the writer puts in too many twists and turns, the reader will get confused and frustrated. There are different levels of expectations to keep in mind and they can be treated differently. The way you handle the reader’s expectations for the plot and genre will be different than how you handle a situation in a single scene. The former must conform to some sort of logic while the latter can be more spontaneous.
I really hope that if you are writing in a specific genre you read it a lot. And by reading it a lot you should already have an idea of what makes it that genre. I won’t go through a list of things you need to, or not to, include in each genre. If you have any doubts or questions I’m sure a quick search can lead you to the key elements of any genre or subgenre you could come up with.
I’ll give some examples. In a romance, the expectation is that the couple gets together at the end. It may be ambiguous about whether they will last, but they end up together. Fantasy has something magical or supernatural. Literary fiction will not have these elements. If you try to throw a surprise genre twist in, first of all the shelving at the bookstore will likely give it away anyway, but if you do manage to surprise someone, it can go terribly wrong. I have actually heard people get mad about starting a book or movie and finding out it was fantasy or science fiction. It’s best to be upfront with your readers. Many times people choose their genre’s carefully and some actively avoid certain genres. And if you’re thinking, If they’d only give X genre a try…I know, I’ll trick ‘em! That’s a bad precedent to set. They will automatically be hostile because they were tricked and now other authors of that genre have to work twice as hard to convince them it’s worthwhile. Or maybe we should leave them alone and let them read what they want anyway.
For this section I’m going to reference a concept devised by Orson Scott Card. You can read about it in the book Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was also covered on the podcast Writing Excuses where they call it the MICE Quotient.
Here are the basics. There are four kinds of stories:
Milieu – the story is about going to a new place and exploring it.
Idea – the story is about a question that is raised in the beginning
Character – the story is about the changes in a character or relationship
Event – the story is about an event that takes place, its aftermath and resolution.
You need to figure out which kind you are telling and then tell the reader at the beginning. Then, and most importantly, that is the kind of story you need to end.
For example, the Wizard of Oz is a Milieu story. The point of the story is to explore Oz and go home. If the movie started with Dorothy desperately wanting to get home, and then the middle of the movie is spent trying to find the wizard so she can accomplish it, but at the end, she suddenly gets distracted by taking over as the witch of the west, the audience would have been disappointed. What about Aunt Em? Where did things derail?
You can have more than one kind of story within your story but they should be bracketed, like parentheses in algebra. (Sorry for dredging up any unpleasant middle school memories you may have.) But the point is, you need to close them in the reverse order you opened them. If you start a Milieu story then start a Character subplot, you need to close the Character arc first, before the Milieu. This gives the reader closure for the small things before the big things and keeps them interested even as you start to resolve the issues of the story. If you do the big one first, they may not care anymore about the smaller stakes.
And if you don’t resolve the story type you started with you’ll either need to rewrite the beginning or figure out where you went off course. Readers are not pleased when they think they are reading one thing and then it all changes at the end.
The idea behind Chekhov’s Gun is that if you mention something, it had better be relevant. In the example, there is a gun on the wall and by mentioning it, the expectation has been planted that it will be fired.
I did this on accident once. I had a vague idea for my story and started going. At one point I had someone read it and then asked them what they thought was going to happen and what the story was about. One thing they said that struck me was that they expected a certain character to come back later and be important. I had made no plans for that character. I needed someone to fill a role at the moment and hadn’t planned on bringing her back later. But my reader made me think. Did I give her too prominent a role that should maybe be cut back or should I give her a bigger role for the rest of the story?
Red herrings are one thing but readers will get frustrated if you constantly bring up random things, no matter how cool, that later play no role in the story. This happened to me a few times in Perdido Street Station. China Mieville is a master world builder and has a truly unique imagination. There were times, however, when he would divert on some super cool tangent and then I would be disappointed when it wasn’t really relevant to the story. (Unless I missed something which is entirely possible.)
Bottom line, if you have a truly awesome idea you just have to put in the book, make sure it’s part of the story and not just set dressing. There isn’t room for things that don’t have relevance.
Deus Ex Machina
This one is kind of the opposite of the last. Just as you shouldn’t bring up a thing and then never mention it again, you shouldn’t bring something in at the end that you’ve never mention before. The classic example is Tolkein’s eagles. They swoop in to save the day on more than one occasion throughout the various Middle-Earth sagas and there is no foreshadowing about it. The characters can’t get themselves out of trouble and some random outside force has to come and help.
This is very unsatisfying, especially if the characters are competent. The reader wants to see how the characters get themselves out of their problems. That’s, like, the whole reason to read a book. If they get randomly saved all the time then what story are we actually reading?
This concept doesn’t have to be so dramatically demonstrated. I read a book once, which shall remain unnamed, where the characters were constantly cornered and then saved by luck. The bad guy would just get tired of searching for them or some random noise would distract them. It was very frustrating. I never felt like the characters were good at anything because they never had to do anything.When the big moment came for them to prove themselves, I didn’t really care what happened and I fully expected them to win because they had such an easy time up till then.
When To Defy
So, when can you defy the reader’s expectation? There are subtle ways to play with the expectations of genre and story type. You’ll have to play with these to find out what works and what doesn’t. You can defy expectations throughout the story though.
Scene By Scene
Each scene is a chance to defy expectations. Are the characters making their way through a scary cave where the ceiling is covered in dangerous-looking stalactites? Then have them be careless about footing and fall through the floor. Is your character constantly clumsy and then set with a delicate task? Rather than have them drop all the good china, have the dog run through the house and knock over the table. The reader knew the china would be broken (expectation) but you can change who did it.
I play with character expectations all the time. I do it, kind of, to stick it to society but it’s actually worked out okay so far. My big one is gender. If I am working on a story and naturally assign a gender to a character I examine why. If it’s because “well, the doctor is usually a man” then I change it. I deliberately mix up my genders just to do it. Once I had a scene with two parents whose daughter was kidnapped. I made the mother a total mess who could barely speak or feed herself, then I thought, nope, that’s too expected. So I changed it to the comatose father and the mother was the no-nonsense-let’s-do-something-about-it type. It worked well.
There are all sorts of character traits you can change to defy expectations – race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, anything. And let me just say, that doesn’t have to be what your story is about. In the above example, the parents were not even secondary characters, only in the book for a couple chapters and really only two, maybe three scenes. The story wasn’t about the strong woman who has to support her emotional husband who everyone thinks is wrong for being that way. It was just part of the world. The way things were.
You can casually defy expectations without standing on a soapbox and shouting that you have a message. There’s definitely a time for that, but it doesn’t have to be this book. I believe in subtly dropping my messages throughout my stories until someday it just seems normal.
Readers’ expectations can feel daunting, and trying to meet them can feel like pandering. But there’s a difference between trying to guess what a reader wants and what makes a fulfilling story. If you can meet the basic expectations but in a fresh way, that is the goal. I know you’re saying, “Oh, is that all?” It can be done and you can do it. Just practice, get beta readers, and practice some more.