by D.L. Sparks
As a romantic suspense author and a lover of suspense, one of my favorite writing tools is the reversal of expectation (RoE.) It is a storytelling device whereby the author makes the reader believe one thing about a character, then flips the character into someone the reader does not expect. Stephen King did it in SECRET WINDOW, SECRET GARDEN. In the novella we are introduced to author Mort Rainey, who is accused of plagiarism. We learn at the end, at the reversal, that Mort has split personality disorder and has been accusing himself of not just plagiarism, but unexplained murders. Screenwriter Clark Gregg pulled off the reversal of expectation perfectly in the movie “What Lies Beneath”. Kindhearted, university researcher Norman Spencer is concerned for his wife, Claire. She suffered post traumatic shock after a car accident and was also experiencing empty nest syndrome. However, the RoE was that Norman actually murdered the young co-ed and was now trying to kill his wife. To me this movie was the epitome of reversal of expectation.
However RoE is something that many will try but only few will be able to pull off expertly. Here are two things to consider:
1. Using the reader’s expectations to your advantage
This tool in the craft of writing is definitely something that needs to be worked on and perfected. So many times you will hear someone say how they figured out an ending before they finished a book or movie. Mastering RoE would be one way of thwarting any similar storytelling disappointments. But the good thing is that because most stories are bred from the same formula, you can convince your reader that they are about to travel down a familiar road, then hook a quick left when they least expect it.
2. Timing the Reversal of Expectation for the big Aha!
RoE is best suited for the climax or peak of a novel. It usually adds to the intensity and gets your readers' attention and hooks them in so you can bring your story full circle. One of the things I love to hear as a writer is, "I did NOT see that coming!" But even with the "aha!" moment it still has to make sense to the reader or they will feel unsatisfied and duped. In "Secret Window" it was very believable that a writer could have shut himself off from the real world to the point of becoming a recluse, thus becoming a victim in his own mind. In "What Lies Beneath" Harrison Ford's character had everything to lose, so he had to stay true to his story. Viewers even sympathized with him, thinking his wife was losing her mind, never straying from the original plotline the writer intended. And not realizing they were being set up for the big "Aha!!" moment.
How do you use Reversal of Expectation to wow your readers?