Expectations – the ball the game is played with

There are many ways to dissect a story. One of the ways that has proven to be most rewarding for me is to consider only the reader’s expectations. Plot, story, theme, character, point of view — all of it, right out the window (it’s fairly liberating). The only analysis becomes what is expected vs. what actually happens.
Because if writing is a game, the reader’s expectation is the ball. If I can put some spin on that ball and move it around well, I feel like I’m doing my job as a storyteller. If I can’t I’m probably just wasting a reader’s valuable time.
Say I describe a character who’s an ex-drill instructor. Crew cut. Ramrod straight posture. The kind of guy who irons his t-shirts. You develop expectations about this guy. He probably doesn’t suffer fools gladly. You expect him to swear a bit and not back down from a fight.
And if tell a story where he swears and gets into fights, well, it’s probably going to be pretty dull. I could be colorful about how I describe the fights and invent all manner of interesting oaths, but that’s really fighting an uphill battle. All that stuff is the window dressing on the story itself. And if there’s no story beneath it, it basically has to be the best window dressing of all time. (Who wants to perfect window dressing when you should be building houses?)
But let’s say I tell you that this guy is scared. In fact, it’s been so long since he’s been afraid, he’s having trouble placing the sensation. It not what we expect from this character. Now it gets interesting. Why is he afraid? What is scaring him?
It could be a fierce monster. Or a guy pointing a gun at his head? But that’s what we expect. What if it’s a 9 year old girl? Now we’re curious about the girl. Why is he scared of the girl? She could have the power to start fires with her mind. But that feels kind of expected. What if she’s just an ordinary girl? No powers what so ever? What about an ordinary girl could scare a hard-ass Jarhead. And I mean really scare him.
Let’s make her Ebola Mary — a carrier of a fantastically lethal disease.
And what does this leatherneck do when confronted with a horrible, inglorious death. He could run away. He could talk big. He could break down crying. He could attack. He could whistle a happy tune. The entire universe of human action is open to us really. But which one is the least expected and why?
Because if everything happens as we expect it will, a story becomes dull as paste.
To be sure, this is quite a simplification of story construction. Some conventions must be adhered to. And paying certain things off creates a very enjoyable experience. But being aware of the expectations that story creates really helped me understand writing in a new way. In the next post I’ll test my analytical tool on a few well-known tales.

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