Readers enjoy the unexpected. Not knowing what’s going to happen is part of the pleasure of hearing a story. But just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you want to know.
If a man approaches a crossroad where he can turn left or right, you don’t know which way he’s going to choose. But when he does choose, you won’t be surprised. You knew it was going to be one of the two.
So a character going about his business, even though every action he takes is unknown to the reader right up until it is revealed, won’t be engaging purely on the basis of not knowing.
But you can’t have clowns with knives jumping out from behind bushes all the time to keep the reader on their toes (well, not more than once; okay, maybe twice). And assuming you’re writing something vaguely realistic, a lot of the time characters will be doing things within a familiar frame of reference.
A high school student will probably eat something at lunchtime. A policeman will go to a crime scene. A poker player will win the hand or lose it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have normal things happen within a story, nor that you need to throw in a random clown to spice things up (not more than three times, tops). But not knowing something and then finding out isn’t always an effective way to provide intrigue. If you just reveal which of the available options it is, that’s going to feel flat and predictable.
You have to guide the reader's expectations.
Here’s an example of what I mean. At the start of The Hunger Games there’s the draw for choosing who gets picked as tribute. The options are all the children in the district. It ends up being Katniss’s younger sister, Prim. Since it’s clearly established that she is in the draw for the first time, even though we don’t know who will be chosen, her selection is certainly a possibility. But it’s still a surprise when her name is drawn. Why?
What the story does is not only tell us the possibilities, it also guides us to a particular outcome. The emphasis is very much on whether Katniss or Gale will get chosen. Lots of details about how many tickets they have in play. How lucky they’ve been not to be chosen before.
The author manipulates the reader into not just being aware of the options, but convinces them of which options are more likely.
This is down to skill and technique. Misdirection. But it’s very easy to be heavy handed and draw attention to the sleeve with the dove stuck up it.
What you get in a lot of WIPs is a character, options, an unknown outcome... and that’s it. The approach is left neutral. The story, like the reader, is left waiting to find out which of the obvious and predictable options will get chosen. No influence from the writer.
If Katniss, Prim, Gale and Peeta were all presented as equally viable choices for the games, Prim’s selection would have had far less impact.
In order for something to be unexpected, it isn’t enough for it to be unknown, another outcome needs to be expected.
You have to convince the reader they do know what’s going to happen, and then have it not happen. Then they’ll stick with the story at a far deeper level to see what else goes against their expectations.
That’s all very well, but have you ever read a book numerous times (or a film viewed often)? And you still enjoyed it, even though nothing was unexpected or unknown? How does that work? In Thursday’s post we’ll be looking into it.
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