Meeting and Subverting a Reader’s Expectations

A murder mystery needs to open with a murder!

Whenever a reader chooses something to read dictated by their own tastes and preferences they come to that story with expectations and preconceived notions in mind. A writer that managed to both fulfill and at the same time subvert those expectations and notions is going to be more successful than a writer who ignores them completely.

When you go to an action movie, you expect to see a big fight and hopefully some explosions. The faster you get to a fight scene the happier you’re probably going to be. That’s what you came for. And if the movie manages like The Expendables or Furious 7 to have a story that hangs on by more than a thread, then you’re going to remember that movie more than a movie that doesn’t. As a viewer, you got what you came for, fights, explosions, funny quips and then some, a meaningful story that made you think or tugged at the heart strings.

Every genre has conventions. That’s why they’re genres. Authors ignore them at their peril. In a murder mystery, a writer needs to have a murder in the beginning of the book. If they’re a detective, someone might bring them a case. If they’re a bumbling amateur that is actually the town baker with an interest in history and crime then somehow they’re going to stumble across this body and mystery one way or another. Or maybe they’re a columnist for the local paper but aren’t assigned to crime, but art or sports. Then there is another set of expectations added. The reader expects to learn something about baking or to learn something about whatever column the newspaper man is researching.

In a romance novel, the two main characters need to meet and find each other attractive. In an adventure novel, the characters are most likely going somewhere else and delivering at least one punch to the gut. In a thriller, the character needs to be escaping a deadly situation. In a mystery, a stolen item, a missing person, a dreadful secret, it all needs to be solved. In a fantasy novel… okay, that honestly depends on the fantasy novel. Speculative Fiction has gotten so fractured.

Think about the article about the “worst way to open a book from literary agents” that I linked the other day. In there two agents gave contradictory advice on how to open a book in the same genre. One said not to open with exposition and prose (such as describing the scenery or someone bringing you the mail, I suppose.) The other said not to open in the middle of a fight or an action scene. Which leaves a writer wondering what’s left?

Here is the thing, it’s conventional in the speculative fiction genre (fantasy and science fiction) for there to be lots of descriptions of the scenery and aliens, especially if it is harder scifi and high fantasy. The readers of those genres expect to read paragraphs about odd or magnificent landscapes. This was set in stone by writers such as Asimov, Tolkien and Burroughs. If you don’t have those type of scenes in your speculative fiction novel the reader that loves that type of novel will be cheated of their expectations.

On the other hand, low fantasy, soft science fiction and most urban fantasy novels are expected to open with some sort of “action” to kick off the plot whether it’s a fight or not. (Though many also go the exposition route.) In these genres, the readers care less about the scenery and the technology and the culture, they want to get to the action and to the characters as fast as possible. If there were long paragraphs about chewing the scenery, they’d be put off and go read something else.

Writers who meet the expectations of their genre in a believable way are more likely to be successful than writers that aren’t.

In Shrek, the writers set up a bunch of expectations. This was a fantasy realm filled with characters we know out of fairy tales. Somewhere, there is a Princess in a tower waiting for her true love (no doubt a Prince) to rescue her. They set up a classic tale of a damsel in distress waiting for her hero. Then they made the local Lord the villain and sent an ogre to rescue her instead. Subverting all the expectations of the viewer. In fact, they built their entire marketing campaign around this. Then, in Shrek 2, they were able to do whatever they wanted because they’d already simultaneously fulfilled and subverted what the viewers of Shrek wanted to see. They wanted to see the Princess get rescued and live happily ever after. Except, she did it with an ogre. The writers didn’t need to continue and write another fairy tale based story. They’d done that. They could move on to something different and potentially new. That’s what made both Shrek and Shrek 2 so successful. By the end of Shrek, we wanted Shrek to win the day because he’d spent so much time talking with Donkey like they were both teenagers. And well, Shrek had done all these awesome things (without slaying the Dragon) in order to prove he was worthy of the girl. (Then found out he had some things in common with the girl. Still, two day romance, cringe.)

Of course, you don’t have to be a parody to meet and subvert your reader’s expectations.

Like, with the Expendables, you can write a story that caters to your readers needs and still include a message that is profound and meaningful. Or, you can choose a slightly different ending that is still plausible and then poke mild fun at what the expected ending would have been.

Going against the readers expectations are what writers and readers call twists. And as long as they are supported somehow in the story and don’t come out of nowhere, then they can be surprising and feel natural. If they aren’t foreshadowed in any way or feel like the writer reached into a hat of random ideas and pulled them out, then that’s an unsuccessful twist. Even highly lauded writers have done bad endings and twists. And they’ve been called out on them, loudly and repeatedly.

Crime procedural are full of twists. Some stories have more than others over the course of the season. The writers of an episode set up several plausible suspects among the victims family, friends and coworkers. Then they’ll knock them out leaving at least two as potentials and then go “ah hah, no it was really this third person all along!”

Shows like Criminal Minds also add a thriller element to their episodes. The perpetrator is still out there, committing crimes. Can they stop him before he kills another victim? (This is why I can’t watch Criminal Minds, my nerves just can’t take it.) The viewer expects the team to be able to find and apprehend the killer before they strike again. If they don’t succeed they’d actually be subverting the viewers expectations and if it isn’t made apparent that they didn’t succeed this time because it’s a bigger story arc, the viewers will feel cheated. They expected the heroes to win. (Because shows  like Criminal Minds aren’t actually reality.) If it is made apparent that they’re going to try and catch the criminal another day, then the viewer will more likely feel intrigued that this is a new story arc and will continue to watch.

Timothy Zahn wrote a science fiction trilogy about humans conquering space and meeting aliens. In science fiction, you have the Star Trek types where seek out new life forms and try to be friendly. And then you have the alien invasion types like Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game or Star Craft (though it’s debatable on who is really doing the invading.) In the invasion types, the aliens can’t or won’t communicate with humans and in the Star Trek types, at least the aliens and humans share enough similar technology that they can talk to each other. Timothy Zahn took a Star Trek type situation where the humans wanted to be friendly and subverted it by making the aliens unable or unwilling to communicate. Both sides thought they other started the fight first. And it took 3 books to sort it out.

He set up an expectation, the aliens were obviously intelligent beings, but then instead of helping the humans, they in turn destroyed them and tried to attack them without explanation. As a subversion of genre expectations, it worked well. The readers still got what they came for, humans exploring space, aliens, pseudo science!

You can subvert a reader’s expectations in a variety of ways, character roles, plot, a twist ending, and even setting. Star Trek was essentially “Horatio Hornblower in SPACE!” That’s in a way, how urban fantasy came to be. “Fantasy creatures in the modern world!” It’s okay to subvert your reader’s expectations, as long as you do it consistently and still give them what they came for. Because if you don’t, they may not read you ever again.


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  1. #1 by Liz on April 14, 2017 - 9:57 pm

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who can’t watch Criminal Minds. I watched Hannibal the series with Mads Mikkelsen but I can’t stomach Criminal Minds. It’s that feeling of dread that hits me that these things could be real (much more real than Hannibal and his menu). I also watched it while I was pregnant, and then swore not to watch it ever again LOL


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