Reader Expectations

Over the weekend, I had to attend a family party. At this party, someone began telling a story about the first time she drank alcohol. She set the story up well–gave setting, characters, back story, etc. Then she proceeded to tell the actual story in which she went on a date and ordered her first beer, quite proud that she could do so.

Now, as a listener, I was waiting for the story to turn CRAZY. The way she emphasized certain details and the simple fact that she even wanted to tell this story suggested that the story would take a wild turn.

As a listener, I expected her to end the story with her drinking too much and ruining the date.

Instead the story ended with her ordering a beer while her date ordered a Coke. The end. I was (as I’m sure you can tell) disappointed.  I felt cheated of my five minutes of listening–I wanted a wild ending that balanced out all that set up!

My listener expectations were not met.

As writers, we are expected to meet our readers’ expectations in much the same way. We will:

  1. Not waste their time.
  2. Tell them the story they “expect” to hear.

Okay, I can already hear people disagreeing with #2, but when I say “expect to hear”, I don’t mean telling a predictable story. I mean telling a story that follows an appropriate structure or meets genre requirements.

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For example, a typical story will have tension that grows and grows and grows until FINALLY, there’s a huge showdown (i.e. climax).

The story my friend told built and built but instead of having an explosive climax wrought with drinking-shenanigans, she had ZILCH. So the story just went pffffffft…..

This story structure of rising tension is a very natural thing–we’ve been hearing stories since the dawn of man, and this structure has been around just as long. When we read or listen, we subconsciously learn this structure until it becomes ingrained in our psyche–until it becomes an expectation.

But including such a structure in our writing isn’t always easy. I know that my old stories tended to ramble-ramble-ramble with a pretty steady rate of story tension (BORING), and I see this mistake crop up quite frequently in beginners’ stories.

When I was writing ADS&L, one of the things that I could not get right was the end. The tension was steadily rising, but then there was this giant dip in tension right before the climax. What I needed was for the tension to keep rising and going strong–so to have it suddenly drop and plateau for three chapters was KILLING the story.

How did I finally solve that problem? I cut the three chapters. I completely changed the story so that all that information I’d originally planned to reveal doesn’t get revealed at all (that’ll have to come in book 3, I’m afraid) and now there’s only 1 chapter before the climax begins.

It took me a solid month and 3 re-writes to finally find this solution. But I KNEW it was a problem–I was in touch with my story and my reader expectations, and I knew that what I had written originally simply wouldn’t cut it.

Of course, there are many more reader expectations–it’s not just following plot structure. When you get in to genres, you start dealing with tropes or even flat-out genre-requirements–like a Happily Ever After in romance.  One picks up literary fiction with the expectation of a character driven story (though this does NOT mean you can’t have a solid plot!). One picks up a fantasy with the expectation of magical world-building and epic scale. One picks up a mystery with the expectation that the culprit will be caught by the book’s end (and that whoever said culprit is, it’s not too obvious).

There are also ways you can use reader expectations in your favor–for example, when you’re writing a scary scene. The reader KNOWS something horrible is in that black room where the creepy scratching sounds are, and we know when the MC walks in there that something bad is going to happen. That expectation of “something bad is coming” keeps us flipping pages to find out WHEN and WHAT.

In the end, a true writer (or storyteller) will ALWAYS keep reader expectations at the forefront of his/her mind.  Maybe you won’t meet them all in the first draft, but when you revise, you need to be sure you do!  And while I can’t give you some laundry list of  Expectations To Meet, I can tell you that your intuition knows. You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.

You tell me: what sort of expectations do  you have as a reader? Or what expectations do you always try to meet as a writer?