A week or two ago, people on Twitter were talking about the experience of revision, and the intuitive sense of Story and Shape that one gets after a while—and possible ways to shortcut that process. This led me into thinking about what underlies my personal sense of Story and Shape, and henceforth into Expectation.
(Note that all of this is my own opinion. Some of this comes from my experience reading slush for Ideomancer, but only as accumulated over nearly five years; not any one story, or even any group of stories, in particular. And some of this comes from my recent reading of the archives of various online magazines, some of it from reading stories for critique, and some of it from writing stories myself and then looking at them and saying, "Hm.")
Expectations are important. They're what turn a story from "oh, well, okay" to "oh, cool!" They're especially important because once you set them up, you get to break them, and the more times you do that, the more interested I'm going to be in what you're doing.
Expectations are the reason that people will often say "Twist endings are a hard sell for us". The "and then it was all a dream!" is maybe the most egregious of the twist endings—it completely invalidates everything that's gone before—but when I talk about twist endings I usually mean something different. A twist ending, for me, is when the ending is the first time that the reader's expectations are subverted.
If you make a little line map of a story, the twist-ending goes a bit like this: |
...where the red lines indicate the direction the story goes. The straight lines at the beginning and middle are probably some set-up of open-ended questions, gradual gaining of context and answers for the questions, character development, worldbuilding, etc.
The sharp turn at the end is the twist: a drastic reversal of fortune, a revelation about the world, a revelation about the characters, a revelation about the narrator...any big subversion of an expectation we as readers have been carrying along. It's often, but not always, a subversion of an expectation set up in the very beginning.
As a reader, I don't find this kind of story very interesting because it doesn't surprise me. There's a limited range of ways one can subvert an expectation, in my experience, so if the story only subverts one expectation, there's a limited Realm of Possible Story that it lives in. After you've read a lot of stories, you know the boundaries of this Realm pretty well.
On the other hand, if the twist comes out of nowhere, I don't find it surprising because there's no context or contradiction—and since it's the story's ending, there's no time to unpack the consequences of, "Okay, but what if a spaceship did attack neanderthal Earth out of nowhere?" (Or whatever—I am pretty sure I just made that story up. Except it probably exists somewhere.)
There's a variation, which is the two-twist ending: |
But here again there's only two subverted expectations, and frequently the second subversion is the antithesis of the first, so that you end up where you were heading in the first place anyway. This also has a hard time surprising me, sort of like when you're watching a 45-minute cop show episode and they catch someone at the half-hour mark. Oh no! The real killer's still out there! we cry, with no actual shock in our voices.
There's also, in the graph above, only three possible story-paths. The more stories you've read, the more you expect all three of these results (and not being surprised).
The lesson here is: the earlier you start setting up expectations and subverting them in interesting ways, the bigger the Realm of Possible Stories gets. The number of possible story-paths grows and grows. And the bigger the Realm is, the more I enjoy seeing where inside it this particular story goes.
A few notes here: you do need to also satisfy some expectations, otherwise the story can go quickly off the rails entirely and nobody has any idea what it's doing. Expectations can be micro- or macro-scale; most successful stories have, and subvert/satisfy, both. Also, open-ended questions are not the same as expectations. Open-ended questions are also important, to intrigue readers and keep them reading for more information. But that is not what this post is about.
I'm going to use my own stories as examples, not because I think I'm so great but because I want to talk about how I think of/use expectation in terms of my own writing—and also because I want to talk about flaws as well as things done well, and I feel weird using others' stories in that regard.
So! My one so-far-published story, "As Large as Alone"
, does not subvert a ton of expectations. However, the one BIG subversion happens pretty early on: this girl tells Mandy she's a mermaid, Mandy's sister figures out that the girl is not a mermaid but rather a dead person. The rest of the story is mostly Complicated Emotional Things about Growing Up—but there's also expectations woven into those Emotional Things, like Mandy's expectations of what being a mermaid means, and what Julia thinks the girl knows (i.e. that she's not in fact a mermaid). These characters' expectations collide in (hopefully) interesting ways, despite the fact that the reader knows what's going on fairly early in the story. This is an example of a pretty small Realm of Possible Story that ideally is a different-enough Realm from other Realms that it is still interesting.
I wrote "As Large as Alone" several years ago. Hopefully, I've gotten better at writing since then! Certainly I think I've gotten better at expectations. The more I write, the more this becomes intuitive rather than a thing to work at carefully.
Here's an example from a story I just recently drafted, in one morning, in a white-heat blaze of inspiration. The first sentence is: "They told us they were here to build a road." Expectations implied: they were not there to build a road; probably they didn't build a road. Open-ended questions: who are "they"; why were they really here?
The next sentence begins, "And build a road they did." The next few paragraphs are about the road, and add context about the setting and characters; hopefully that and the lingering open-ended questions are enough to get readers to the fourth paragraph, where at least one of them is answered (sort of) (in a way that gets subverted later—an example of the answer to an open-ended question becoming an expectation that can then be subverted/reversed/further played with).
In revisions, I can work on these further. Can I make the expectations clearer? The questions more urgent? The answers more convincing, so that the later reversal is more powerful and interesting? How close together can I get the original expectation-and-reversal pair? (Not much closer than first sentence and second sentence, probably.) If I have a revelation down there, what expectation does that depend on up here? How can I emphasize that?
Some of this is expanding the Realm of Possible Story. Some of it is building up trust. The more satisfying the initial subversion or confirmation of expectations and assumptions is, the more I trust the writer and the more (I hope) readers will trust me as a writer—to take them on an interesting journey through a large and multifaceted Realm of Possible Story.
Now, none of this is new. Expectations are a thing that writers often talk about when they talk about craft. But I'm not sure I've heard people talking about it in this way, so hopefully some of this is new (and useful) to some people. If nothing else, I know I've learned from hearing the same thing twice in different contexts.
If anyone else has thoughts or questions or further examples, I'd be interested in hearing them!