Here is the second in my ongoing essays about my list of writing tips:
The Trick: Raising expectations in one direction but having the story go in the opposite direction.
The Trick is the secret to writing, the thing that makes a story work: expectation followed by something other than the expected outcome – but something that is thematically consistent.
Of all writing techniques, this is the easiest to do. You just decide where you want the story to go, and then you indicate—through character thought or narration—that the opposite is coming. If you want to have a happy incident, you make your character glum. If you want something bad to happen, you make him unexpectedly happy. It is that simple, and it is tremendously effective.
You just have to remember to use it. That is all.
How best to use it, of course, gets more difficult. If you are too blatant about your reversals, the audience will not be taken in. So, the more subtly you can apply it, the more effective your scene. But you would be amazed at how blatant you can be and still have it work. Some of the best selling authors today are quite obvious in their use of the Trick, and yet people still read their books with great eagerness.
Where the Trick gets tricky is when there is more than one expected outcome, either one of which will not surprise anyone. The author is then called upon to do some clever thinking and find a third option that will surprise and delight. Sometimes, this takes time and creativity, but it is usually worth the effort.
I ran into this problem in my Prospero books. The plot starts out with Miranda believing that everything is fine. Then, aspersions are cast upon her father. Now, suddenly, either outcome “Prospero is innocent of the charges against him” or “Prospero is guilty” no longer seems that interesting.
Either way, there is no Trick.
(The innocent option leaves the reader thinking: “Well, why did I go through all that just to get back where I started.” The guilty option seems too pat: “Prospero was accused of X and Y in Book One and by Book Three, we find out X and Y are true. So? You told us that two books ago.”)
Solving this problem, coming up with an ending that did not disappoint, took quite some effort (and an idea I borrowed from Tolkien—not a plot idea, something from his philosophy of storytelling.) But ultimately, it was a matter of the Trick again. I had to find an option that followed from what had been established but was not what was easily anticipated. (As to whether it worked or not, I shall have to wait for future readers to decide.)
The best primer for understanding the Trick I have ever seen is the book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In this book, everything reverses. If the main character thinks something good is coming, something bad happens. If she expects the worst, it turns out well. The whole book is the young woman’s fantasies and then the contrasting reality that ensues.
Other good examples? Harry Potter: which is more surprising, more interesting: a rich, popular boy saves the world? Or an unwanted boy who lives under the stairs saves the world?
The Hobbit, etc.: which is more surprising: a great hero defeats the Dark Lord? Or, an ordinary short hobbit defeats the Dark Lord?
Strider is a really great example. He looks all dark and sinister. No one expected the guy sitting in the dark in a cloak in an inn—the epitome of a robber or bad character—to be the hidden king! (He’s such a good example, there’s even a poem about it.)
So next time you sit down to write a story, just take a few minutes to think how best to lead the reader up before he goes down. Pick where you want to go, then put the something that is directly contrary to that idea in before you get there.
It is amazing how quickly and easily this brightens up a story. Almost like adding garlic or chocolate to dish of food. (Hopefully, not both at the same time. )