In an earlier writing guide, I mentioned the importance of proper building for emotional impact, how showing character traits instead of mentioning helps readers form the crucial connections that will enable them to feel whatever it is you want them to, from humour and attraction to anxiety—and if you can manage it, fear.
But there is something to say about expectations. With any genre, emotion and well, story, knowing what is coming or at least having a hint can derail whatever the storyteller attempts. It’s why, for example, horror novels don’t faze me. I have never felt fear from a book, not even a Stephen King novel. I’ve felt revulsion, anxiety even, but that cold drip of dread I have never suffered.
Part of the reason for that is that written fiction depends on my imagination and within the confines of my already strange mind, I’m safe from the spooky things.
But the other part is that I know what to expect from a Stephen King story. Even if I am not aware of the details or even the plot, as I know his work I have a good feeling of what kind of story I’m going to read, and so I can build walls in my mind, protections against any turn for the terrible, the grotesque or the horrifying.
To prove this point and test how much expectations play into your emotional responses to fictions, let’s go through a little example. Let me know in the comments what your reaction would be.
We’ll use the latest Disney animated film for this, Moana.
You pick up a novel, the early adventures of Maui. You read the blurb on the back of the book and it mentions the demigod, his hook, the hair, the bod and a plot that promises adventures in tropical settings along with interesting characters.
What is your expectation right now? I might be wrong, but it’s likely to be something wholesome, nice adventuring fun, maybe even a few song lyrics put in there, right? Somethings just a few drunken Johnny Depps away from a Pirates of the Caribbean story.
But let’s say that as you read it, you see the story taking dark turns, with Maui often having to make terrible decisions. There’s bloody betrayals, comrades killed or abandoned to a gruesome fate. Then there are depictions of terrible acts such as cannibalism, pillage and rape. It’s only a step away from being grotesque. Slowly, the novel turns decidedly dark, and it seems like the adventure is just a slasher film from Maui’s point of view, as if he were Jason Voorhees.
The question is, how strong are your reactions to the material? How powerful is the shock? Would a wholesome adventure give you a similarly powerful emotional response, or has the novel’s surprising darkness struck a powerful blow? Again, let me know in the comments, but I believe the reaction would be strong, even if it’s just confusion as to what you’re reading and how it made it past Disney’s censors. Also, for the sake of this argument, let’s say the prose is good enough to make you feel anything.
But let’s return to my point about Stephen King. I expect things from his novels—mostly murderous vehicles—and so the intended effect will likely fail.
So, how do you do it? How do you create that crucial emotional impact if your readers already expect things to come? The answer is simply: surprise. There’s a reason jump-scares work in audio-visual horror, because when you prime the audience to feel something, you just need an event to set them off, make them scream, cry or laugh hysterically.
But it can’t be just something out of nowhere, you must have build-up. You must prime the audience for that sudden surprise, that twist, that event that will fill them with anxiety. A good example of build and twist is in the Harry Potter novels. The deaths in books 5 and 6 happen at a time where they have the greatest impact. In book 5 you have the tension and danger of battle, a situation where anyone might die, but you don’t expect it to be that character—at least I didn’t. And in book 6, while you suspect that the death might happen, it takes place after a scene in which the character almost dies. You’re ready for it then, but then there’s stay of execution until a few chapters later, when you think the soon-to-be-dead character is out of the woods.
Let’s do another example of build-up leading to a strong emotional reaction, and we’ll use Stephen King’s Carrie. The entire story builds to that crucial scene with the pig’s blood. You, as the audience, know something’s going to happen. You know the characters and you know something’s going to break there, but you don’t know when and so King delays the trigger until the last possible second, that moment of joy for the character, when you’re feeling as elated as she is. And then it comes, that “Holy Crap!” moment. I don’t find it scary, but it was shocking and well done.
The build of tension and atmosphere and priming a reader depends exclusively on how good you are at showing the readers what’s going on, in character reactions and events. It’s no use telling your audience that something is scary, instead show how the characters react to the fear and chills. In building an atmosphere, the old saying of “show, don’t tell” becomes of paramount importance. Use the senses, make them see, hear, smell and feel the things around them, use them to build tension, but also to distract from the twist, so the timing of isn’t predictable.
It’s not about delaying the trigger, but finding the right moment for it. Sometimes an earlier twist has a stronger reaction even if it doesn’t have as much of a build-up because there is a lower expectation of something happening that “early” in the story.
Timing is everything!
Another entirely different approach to the big surprise relates to my rather exaggerated example using Disney’s characters and it’s all about tonal shifts. Even if a reader expects to feel something you can shift the tone to throw them off the scent, to distract them from the truly impactful event you’re cooking up. Comedy is a good example, adding some levity to a tense situation to soothe the nerves before you turn the tension up to 11.
Tonal shifts are a way of playing with the reader’s expectations, as you make them consider that perhaps they were wrong to expect anything in the first place and just when they’re open to a new possibility, you make them pay for it.
I’ve used famous authors and works as examples, and so you might think, if you’re not well-known, that you don’t have to worry about this, but you do. All storytellers must deal with expectations. The moment you choose a genre, a setting and even a character’s gender, there are expectations, there are tropes that readers will expect to see and it’s your job to juggle them, to make sure to play with those expectations and get that powerful emotional response every single time.
Predictability is your worst enemy, remember that. If you reinforce reader expectations, you will struggle to capture their attention at best, making it harder to make them feel anything, and bore them to tears at worst.