Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reversal Expectations


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?

PhotoBest selling Author D.L. Sparks’ fast paced suspense novel THE LIES THAT BIND(Urban Books, 2010) landed on the bestsellers list of Black Expressions Book Club magazine, embraced by readers as far away as London and France. Ms Sparks has been voted one of the Top 25 Most Influential Black Fiction Writers on Twitter and is also a contributing writer to Rag ‘N Riches Magazine‘s, where she runs a relationship column. Visit her at


Unknown said...

Dee, thanks for sharing this writing tool with us. We're in the editing phase of my novel and if I don't have a gray hair, it's coming.

Yolanda said...

I love the tips that you offered D.L. I find it very helpful as I'm writing a suspense now.

Unknown said...

Yolanda, you write suspense?!

jenny milchman said...

I love this topic, DL! It's a tool well worth exploring--and you did it very well :) Going in my toolkit...Thanks!

Yolanda said...


I'm not sure if I'm creating a new genre or not. Probably not but, the novel I'm working on will be Christian Suspense.

Carla Buckley said...

Hi DL,

This is a great topic--thanks for sharing your insights!

As a reader, I love a surprising twist, and you're absolutely right: it's only successful if it's set up properly.

I've just read BEFORE I FALL ASLEEP and SISTER (by Rosamund Lupton), both of which I think are also very strong examples of RoE.

Unknown said...

Yolanda, check my blog, Christian Fiction. I just judged the 2011 INSPYS for Christian Suspense.

Tameka said...

D.L. I absolutely love suspense, thrillers and psychological dramas! Thanks for sharing this term and tip. I played around with ROE in my novel that I'm working to get published and I had so much fun with it! It's definitely a tool I want to get better at. I look forward to reading your work.

Unknown said...

Carla, thanks for those book references. I will check those out. :)

Anonymous said...

I have always loved suspense and like Tameka said psychological dramas are a huge draw for me as well. I loved the SAW series for just that reason. They blood and guts they could've kept. LOL! But it was the pyschological aspect that had me hooked and how he manipulated these people with their minds.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mentions Carla, I will have to check both of those out. Like I said reading is my form of studying the craft so I am open to seeing how other authors pull their works together, it helps to define where I am on the spectrum as an author. Thanks again!! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

Jenny I'm really glad you have another "tool" to add to you kit. As authors our kits tend to get bogged down but in a good way, especially once they are filled with the tools that fit our writing styles.