Writing: What to do when you can’t break the expectations you’ve made

Writers have it easy: we get to throw our own soft pitch and then smash it out of the park. Meaning, we control the story so we get to setup just the right plot inflection for our big fireworks, which usually involve surprising the reader.

This generally means creating an expectation and then breaking it, using surprise to generate reader engagement. The trick of course is to break expectations in a manner that is credible: it must fit the story and, of course, further it. While in a detective story, it might be a surprise to have the protagonist find an alien in the barn that he is searching for clues, you can bet that’s where all your readers will drop your story (and you will get really entertaining reviews, too, if anyone bothers to review). The typical approach is to turn the expectation on its head: the detective does not find a clue in the barn but he finds the suspect instead, subsequent conversation leading to another place to look for clues, perhaps.

But what do you do if the expectation is critical to your story? It might be one of the main plot points that the story is built on. In my case, my fantasy novel relies on the hero meeting a young dragon fairly early in the story whose mother wants him to learn the ways of humans (and more nefarious things, of course). I’d written to the point where the expectation is set that the hero will travel to a certain place and find his new mount. All nice but now I was faced with a chapter where the reader already new what was going to happen. In the end, a novel can tolerate a few such chapters, especially if there’s a big pay-off like a DRAGON, but why build such a chapter into the first draft? There’s almost always a way to heighten the suspense while still serving the story.

Two ways occurred to me to deal with this, both viable.

  1. Re-write the previous chapter to change the expectation that was set. This may yet prove a reasonable way to go but for now, I decided to keep the expectation, partly because I expect that should this ever get published, the jacket pitch will likely mention that the hero rides a dragon so it won’t be a mystery regardless of what expectations exist in the narrative at this point.
  2. Find a way to break the expectation while still keeping it. Sort of a conundrum, at least it felt that way at first. Obviously if the hero is going to end up riding the dragon, the expectation would be met but maybe there were ways to mix it up some so that between the start of the chapter and the dragon “acquisition” expectations could be broken.

I liked the second option better; I could always go back to the first path if it wasn’t fruitful. But where to start? How about an old fashioned brainstorm: for me, that’s a blank piece of paper where I take freeform notes. Of course, being a geek with terrible handwriting, my sheet of paper is MS OneNote but the concept is same (and this way, I can even decipher my own notes! Bonus!). Brainstorming is great in a group but it works fine solo. The method is to jot down any ideas as they occur, without critique. That’s really the trick of a successful brainstorm: you want to let the ideas flow and while any given idea might not be useful, it can often lead to one that is. If you censor your ideas and don’t write it down “because it can’t work” you might pinch off an ultimately productive line.

In this case, I just started writing things down: some ideas, some notes on what I wanted to accomplish in this chapter, some things I didn’t want to happen. It also helped to list the expectations established in the narrative to date. Then I decided it might also be useful to list the “anti” expectations: that started as just logically inverting the expectations but before I’d finished I’d also added a few additional ones that were helpful (anti-expectation: “dragon eats hero.”) To that, I added a few reminders of what I wanted to establish (namely that dragons are dangerous and are not like people, or kitty-cats-with-scales for that matter).

It didn’t take more than ten minutes of this before I had my solution: while the expectation existed that the hero would get the dragon as a mount, I could have the dragon attack him first. For one thing, while the reader was expecting the dragon in the chapter and for the hero to go get him as a mount, the dragon was expecting someone else. This has the virtue of establishing some of the dragon’s personality through showing and as it turns out, in the process of the exercise, I also thought of a way of showing an aspect of the setting I was casting about for a way to handle. In the latter case, chapter one mentions that floating islands were falling from the sky. While that is useful for the plot at that point, it wasn’t really germane to the overall plot and something I did not have happen on-scene in my initial synopsis. But you can’t really mention an island crashing from the sky without having at least one in the story (that might seem like a cheat or misleading to the reader) so I’d been casting about for some plot-relevant way to show one.

Anyway, I’m still writing the chapter. It may not work or survive a later re-write but I thought I’d share how a few minutes of brainstorming helped. In the end, the solution as currently settled on isn’t exactly earth shattering but the process was helpful. A few minutes of brainstorming helped me avoid staring at a blank sheet of paper (the dreaded writer’s block) or creating a chapter with a big, red bulls-eye on it for a re-write. It’s not the only arrow in the quiver but in the right places, a brainstorm can help keep things moving. My notes are below, complete with typos and garbled sentences.