Reader Guesses, Coloring Our Expectations

Marie Brennan, author of a series of historical-fantasy novels and a bunch of short stories, including multiple ones in my magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, had a really neat post on the SFWA website a few weeks ago about audience expectations and reactions in terms of theories or guesses about plot twists or revelations.

She talks about how those reader guesses can change over the course of experiencing a work; how the author or the plot sometimes does meet the theory or otherwise react to it, and how we writers when reading may experience that more acutely than most audience members.

I really like her concept of “third-order (plot) answers”:

A lot of mysteries have an obvious culprit, and then a character who is, if you know your narrative conventions, the obvious alternative to the obvious culprit. I like mysteries that go one step further.

That’s what I try to do in my plots too.  My story “Of Casting Pits and Caustic Salts” (published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly) had several plots twists.  An older story of mine didn’t seem to have been very good at hiding who the culprit was, so with “Salts,” I tried especially hard to offer multiple culprits for each event of unknown cause.

Not so much an obvious culprit and an obvious alternate, as Brennan explains, but two or even more possible culprits. And multiple possible reasons why those culprits might have done that thing. “Salts” is a spy story, so the twists were important.  And to me, because character is always the key, the characters’ possible motivations for perhaps having done those twist events were even more important.

So I think the idea of reader expectations and theorizing of culprits is very important for us writers to consider as we craft the story. We want the reader to enjoy the read–I’m with Brennan in that the best plot twists are the ones you see coming half a second before the reveal. We need to make those twists engaging beforehand, yet still surprising once they happen.

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