Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 11, 2023

Take Advantage of Your Reader’s Expectations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

To strengthen your story, look at each scene as a reader would.

We writers spend a lot of time looking at our work like, well, a writer. We study plot and structure, pace and tension, character and dialogue, but how often do we think about how the reader is going to react to our story?

One of my critique groups is a “critique as we write” group. Every week, we turn in two chapters of our first drafts or whatever draft we’re revising. It’s a great way to keep our writing momentum going since we have people waiting for pages, but it’s had a much better benefit than we realized when we started the group.

We get real-time feedback about what readers expect to happen next.

This has utterly changed the direction of two of my novels so far, and both for the better.

We don’t turn in our comments and line edits until after we’ve met, so our group discussion focuses on the big picture issues and what the author is trying to do with the story.

Which means, when I set up certain situations that really hook the reader, my critique partners tell me they’re excited about what’s going to happen next. If I didn’t plan for anything exciting, I know I need to figure out something and meet those expectations.

This pushes me to dig deeper and think outside the box, as well as take advantage of anything I might have accidentally done or inadvertently set up.

Example One: Make the World Building Matter

I have a magical storm in my middle grade WIP that was originally just colorful world building. It was approaching the town, and would hit and be scary and cool, but I’d never intended it to be more than just “magical weather” to show how the magic in this world works.

But my critique partners were excited about it, and one was convinced that the storm was going to cause something awful that would have a significant impact on the story.

Which, um, yeah, it wasn’t gonna do that.

I was in quite the quandary after that session, because I knew the next chapter would let my readers down. Clearly, I’d created a great hook and they were anticipating what might happen, which raised the tension and stakes in the story. Even though the storm wasn’t that big a deal, I saw how it could be.

Not following through on reader anticipation would have missed a huge opportunity to deepen my story and make the world richer. I brainstormed how that storm could play a larger role, and that changed the course of my entire novel.

It was still the same story, but the storm created a situation that brought the core conflict into play in a much more impactful way than I’d previously planned. It went from being a world building detail to the bridge between the inciting event and the second act of the novel.

Which was super cool.

How you can use this in your own novel:

If you don’t have access to critique partners or beta readers, look at your scene as if you’ve never seen it before and have no idea what is going to happen next. Ask:

  • What events have you set up that could go somewhere more interesting than you originally planned?
  • What are the moments that will pique reader curiosity?
  • What currently doesn’t lead anywhere, but it interesting? Could you make it lead somewhere?

Pretend this is the first time you’ve seen these pages and put yourself in the reader’s shoes. If you do have access to a beta reader, give them the chapter and ask them what they expect will happen, and what parts they were excited or curious about. If they line up with what you did, awesome! If not, can you use that knowledge to improve the story?

Example Two: Move Things Around for the Strongest Impact

In the science fiction detective story I’m revising, one of my critique partners noted that she was ready for my protagonist to “go to the cabin.” It was something I’d been teasing for the first half of the book, but it was originally intended to be part of the epilogue. I never planned for my protagonist to go there before the plot was resolved, as it was something that was part of his backstory, and a subplot for the series.

Well, after her comments, I obviously needed to re-think that. I’d dangled too big a carrot and now I’d set reader expectations that I wasn’t going to deliver on. That would lead to unsatisfied readers.

I’d been trying to deepen the protagonist’s personal story, and I realized that if he did indeed “go to that cabin” in the midpoint, it combined the two main conflicts of the entire novel. It solved a problem I’d be struggling with, and did it in a way that cranked up the tension and mystery, as well as brought the personal story arc into the plot arc.

My critique partner was right—that character had to go there, and everything I’d done during the revision inadvertently set it up so readers were ready and anticipating that trip. If I didn’t do it, they’d get annoyed about all the focus I was putting on something that wasn’t going to play a big role in this book.

And just as my magical storm had changed my MG fantasy, this visit to the cabin changed my detective novel, and made it oh, so much richer.

How you can use this in your own novel:

First drafts are great dumping grounds for solid ideas and half-formed ideas. It’s the half-formed ones that often sneak in at odd times, totally out of order, but they bring something compelling to the tale. Move them around and you might wind up with an awesome twist you didn’t realize you had. Ask:

  • Am I holding back the “good stuff?”
  • Is there anything in the story that would have more impact if I revealed it sooner? What about later?
  • What are the things readers are going to be most curious about?
  • What have I been teasing readers with all book? Is there a payoff for all that teasing?

Don’t be afraid to cut and paste events and see how the story flows. Moving things around can tweak your pacing and tension, and add a more compelling layer to the story.

There’s a fine line between doing what readers expect and satisfying reader expectation, and the trick is to skirt that line.

When we do it well, readers anticipate what’s to come and eagerly look forward to seeing it happen. When we do it poorly, they know what’s coming and the story feels stale and predictable. If you can get a sense of what readers expect as you write (or in an early draft), you can play with those expectations so they’re satisfied by what happens, and surprised because it’s not the way they thought it would be.

Do you have beta readers who share thoughts on works in progress?

About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her ebook, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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14 comments on “Take Advantage of Your Reader’s Expectations”

  1. You're right - some pieces of the story can go in several places in different scenes. Even, when you have multiple pov characters, into different characters' thoughts or words.

    It's important to think it through, and use these pieces where they will have maximum impact - and even forewarnings. For the pleasure of the reader, the writer does the work.

    Even the order of events, and near misses in revelations, can be arranged in their most pleasing form. It's the fun part, being the magician.

  2. So timely for me, Janice. At this very moment, I am a beta reader for a writing buddy. Her writing style can be very leisurely and meditative (sometimes more so than I think her novel deserves), and these points will help me suggest how she can step up the pace and engage the reader more fully while still being true to her voice and the story. I'm printing this out to keep near her ms.

  3. When we moved to our new place I couldn't find a critique group that was local, so I started one.

    If you build it they will come.

    While working on a scene that has my protagonist and her buddies driving in a rainstorm on a highway crowded with trucks, I realized after thinking about the readers, that I needed more and better visuals. The scene wasn't interesting enough.

    I managed to heighten the stakes, and it reads better now.

    Thanks for the reminders, Janice!

    1. Indeed! Glad to hear you made it work in a new town.

      That's awesome you spotted a potential issue and were able to fix it 🙂 Always nice when the "writer's eye" does its job, lol.

  4. What an excellent way to critique each other's stories! I'd stopped going to and using critique groups because they were so focused on line edits that there was no big picture feedback.

    Readers see our stories differently than we do. I can imagine that making yourself focus on the big picture feedback for other people's stories helps you develop your stories better in the first place.

    Thank you for sharing this. I may have to start a similar critique group.

    1. It's an amazing group and I highly recommend the format. It's about the story, not the text (though we do point out that stuff as well) We're all so much more invested in each others' stories because of it. We're like proud novel aunties, lol.

  5. It's interesting how you could make your story pivot by using your critique group's insights.

    Thank you, for this actionable post,Janice!

  6. Thanks! It's not always easy to see, either. Sometimes we get locked onto what we planned we miss better options until someone points it out 🙂

  7. Much food for thought here. Thank you so much. Walking that fine line between meeting the readers expectations and the element of surprise will be challenging and interesting. L

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