Mom isn’t a writer, although she should be: she comes up with some great story ideas, and she knows all the good tricks.
When I was little, Mom was divorced with sole custody of me, working two jobs, no alimony, only $20 a month in child support. Still, every year, Christmas brought me every single thing I’d been begging for all year. I was dazzled.
When I was grown and had my own child, Mom told me the trick.
“Right after Christmas, when the toys went on sale, I would pick out some things I thought you’d be old enough to enjoy the next year and I’d put them on layaway. Then, all year, I would talk those things up and get you all excited about them.”
And so it is with writing. (I’ve said it before and I’ll surely say it many many times again: everything is about writing.)
The trick to fulfilling reader expectations is not to follow through on your promises. The trick is to create expectations in the reader of what you intend to give them.
Ever see The Sand Pebbles? It’s famous for being the first American Hollywood movie where the main hero, played by a major star, freakin’ dies at the end. Let’s just say the whole movie was sad as all get-out, but, at that point, totally fulfilled viewer expectations, which were: death is all around, good intentions won’t help, poor decisions sure as hell don’t help, dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you and is (after all) inevitable.
My favorite novel for illustrating this is THE FACE OF TRESPASS by Ruth Rendell. Brilliant! The very first paragraph, which seems full of random stuff, plants the seeds of everything that happens subsequently.
Decide what you want to happen and how you want that to affect your reader. Start laying down the groundwork for that from the first and build on that (if you’re a pantser, write your rough draft, think of that as a rough sketch of a house plan, then go back and finalize the groundwork and build-up).
And that, boys and girls, is the trick.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Take a novel, short story, television episode, or movie. Note the outcome and how you felt about it. If it fulfilled your expectations (not your hopes — that’s different), begin with the beginning and trace how the end was in the beginning.
DanJuly 20, 2015 at 7:16am
Your mom was pretty smart. She got you the gifts you wanted and taught you a valuable lesson.
Marian AllenJuly 20, 2015 at 8:13am
You’re so right, Dan. A master manipulator who only used her phenomenal power for good. 🙂
JaneJuly 20, 2015 at 9:36am
Hi, Genarose! Love you, girrrl!
It must be nice having a name no one else does. Mine, alas, is Jane. Yeah, it rhymes with plain. And I DO know about Tarzan.
Anyway, great post. Truly something useful and tres possible to keep in mind while actually writing!
We’ve all seen so much bad story-telling on the tube that we can easily absorb all the wrong lessons. What passes for sructure….well, I’m going to stop right there. You know what I mean.
Another example, a good one this time: Twilight Zone.
Think of all those stories, where they took you, what they made you fear… You know what I mean.
Marian AllenJuly 20, 2015 at 12:11pm
She has not found it so. Many many years and many many spellings. lol
Twilight Zone never disappointed. Still freaking me out, but never disappointed.
Kat FrenchJuly 20, 2015 at 4:43pm
Your mama is super smart, MA.
And the creating expectations thing is not just about plot. It’s very much about tone, too. The whole “Oh, this is *that* kind of story” moment. If you have that early on, it’s like arriving at summer camp and discovering your cabin mates all share your sense of humor.
If you don’t, it’s like realizing you got on the wrong bus halfway to someone else’s summer camp.
Marian AllenJuly 21, 2015 at 7:59am
LOL! I’ve read a couple of books where I didn’t know I’d been at the wrong camp until months later. There was one about a sentient elevator that I thought was the saddest book I ever read until I talked with somebody who had read the reviews and learned it was supposed to be a hilarious satire. :/