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The fine line between subverting expectations and giving readers what they want

The first thing to realize is what you’ve already been told a thousand times – you can’t please everyone. But! That does not mean you shouldn’t grow as a writer and push yourself to be different and challenging in the ways you spin a tale.

I come across as someone who wants happy endings in my books and movies, or at least bittersweet, so back when my husband and I were first dating, he worried I wouldn’t like one of his favorite movies because…


…the main character dies. But I loved it. Why? Because the ending and Donnie’s death were earned. The way the story was told made his death cathartic even if it wasn’t happy.

Fiction fails at this all the time, whether with deaths, romance, or any other plot points. For me, it’s about pacing, sure, but also about finding those moments when something seems obvious, maybe even allowing it to stay obvious, but then doing something completely different in the end.

For example, my husband and I have been marathoning through the now complete TV series Grimm that first aired in 2011. It’s urban fantasy, where a police detective discovers he can see the truth behind the veil of supernatural creatures living amongst humans, and he struggles to continue doing his job without alerting his partner to the truth.

But of course, his partner is destined to find out, especially when he starts seeing things and worries he’s going insane. The typical path here would lead to a liar reveal, where the truth comes out, the partner is angry, and they are at odds for however long before making up at some critical moment.

But Grimm doesn’t do this. It sets us up for the usual beats and then does something new, allowing the character to be sensible and simply happy that he wasn’t crazy after all, while understanding why his partner hadn’t told him the truth right away.

It was so refreshing! It didn’t lessen the conflict, it paved the way for character growth and a focus on all the other conflicts going on, which for me, as a viewer, was far more interesting.

Now, an example of when to give your readers what they want is harder, because you don’t want to be predictable, but sometimes readers expect something to happen—and they want that to happen. Therefore, they are disappointed if it doesn’t, even if you gave them a unique surprise.

I think the best advice here is to think about the moments you love when enjoying fiction. The big reveals. The first kiss. The drop of humor after a tense moment. Then, as you plot where those happen, make sure enough builds into them to make them earned without being too obvious, but still with enough hints that they are inevitable to feel satisfying when the payoff comes.

And, in the right cases, when you can flip the story on its head and do something different without alienating the expectations of readers, do it. Honestly, it’s better to err on the side of unique storytelling them sticking with the norm.

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