Defying the Reader’s Expectations

Imagine this: you pick up a story and begin reading only to discover that the story seems to be about you.  The main character has your name.  He repeats all of your favorite phrases.  His friends are all people that you know, and the story seems to be drawn from your life.  In fact, as you read, you realize that you know every single scene that will come up.Would you read on?  Probably not for long.  You’d grow bored with it.  It’s too familiar.

As a judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, I sometimes find stories that suffer from the same weakness.  The characters, situations, and even the wording all seem flat and unoriginal.

Over the years, I’ve reached the conclusion that in order for any story to work, there must be a sense of strangeness, uniqueness, to it.

In order for a story to succeed, there needs to be a moment where the reader has a sense of epiphany, where they learn something new.  In that moment, the brain will release several hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, and others associated with learning.  This is nothing new.  Aristotle talked about the need for epiphany more than two thousand years ago, and researchers today who are studying the effects of stories on the brain are measuring the hormones released at the climax of a story.

But if you offer nothing unique in your story—in your characters, in the types of conflicts that you deal with, in the insights that your characters express, or in the way that your story grows and resolves—readers will never reach an epiphany.

And so you have to push yourself to explore new territories, to take on challenges in your characterization, worldbuilding, and plotting that perhaps you’d never imagined.

Let me give you an example.  Imagine that your character Kat is going to meet a friend at a restaurant when a biker who rides a Harley begins heckling her.  Why is he heckling her? you ask yourself.  Because he’s a jerk, of course.  All guys who ride Harleys are jerks, right? You see them on television all the time.  The guy is big, has a beer belly and beard, and wears a leather jacket.

Little does he know, he’s messing with the wrong girl.  Kat just took some self-defense classes, and early in this incident she decides to kick his butt.

Pretty stock situation, right?

Now let’s throw in a twist.

Why is this biker heckling her? What if this “guy” wasn’t born a guy? What if he is transgender?  What if he was born a girl, and he’s actually heckling Kat because something about her reminds him—in a negative way—about himself?  Maybe she’s wearing the same kind of Levi’s that he used to wear, and she has on the same cowboy boots and wrist chains he used to wear.  Maybe when he was young, he was teased by his father for being a “sissy” when he cried, and when he got hurt, he was always told to “cowboy up.”  And something about Kat reminds him of his childhood traumas, and though he doesn’t understand why, he wants to make her cry.

Heck, maybe our biker even recognizes Kat.  He knew her back in third grade, when he was still called Tammy.

Now, I have to admit that there is a certain part of me that says, “I would never write that scene.”  I’m not transgender.  I don’t know if I could write that scene and do it justice.  But there’s another part of me that says, “You have to try.”  You need to examine the world, your characters, and see what insights come from it.  That’s where epiphanies are likely to come from—from your own discoveries.

So I might try writing the scene.  Maybe Kat will try her instructor’s knee maneuver on the biker and discover it doesn’t work.  Maybe the biker will reveal himself to her, what he has done, and Kat will discover that she, in her own way, is trying to develop masculine qualities.  Maybe they’ll go from a fight to a deepening friendship.  Who knows?

The world is full of possibilities, but unless you push yourself, struggle to drive your story to its limits, you will never make real discoveries.  You won’t glean the insights that your story needs to take it from the mundane to the sublime.

But it only happens when you decide to push your creativity, take your story in odd directions, and defy your readers’ expectations.


In the fall, I’ll be doing two writing workshops in Australia. If you want to see me in Australia, or need an excuse to go to Australia, just go here.

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