I Bet You Weren’t Expecting…

Welcome back, all. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m going to require three sample chapters and an outline from each of you by this time next week. The theme is kitchen sink space fantasy: anything that can happen, will happen somewhere.

I’m kidding. Really. That was an attempt (ED: a ham-handed attempt) at subverting your expectations as readers. I’m required to apologize for that (ED: extremely ham-handed), but I would have anyway. For similarly unwieldy subversions turned into tropes, take a glance at daytime television sometime. Or anime. Or fanfic. Shoot, even a goodly mess of scifi abounds with examples of writers attempting to put one over on the reader.

There are plenty of classics. The pair who fall into hate at first sight who don’t end there. That’s practically a subset of romance, and a not-insignificant one. Or go in reverse: instant attraction that fizzles into a stable friendship that lasts decades. A little harder to signal, but not by much.

One pitfall, as always, is not going too far, too fast. The ally has to make that face-heel turn at the right moment, rather than the trite one. Build to it. Don’t lead the reader. You know this one: readers are plenty bright. We all started there, first, and by the time we turn writer, we don’t actually need help getting from Plot Point A, to Plot Point B.

If you want to know how to go gonzo with it, just dig into history, especially ancient mythologies. Oedipus Rex springs to mind immediately, but really anything out of Zeus’ catastrophe of a pantheon can work, with the serial numbers properly filed off. Writers have only been doing that for a few thousand years, after all.

One of my favorites is the wealthy industrialist who isn’t secretly the villain of the piece. I thought Big Hero 6 (the film version) did a good job of this. Was the guy an opportunist and a jerk? Sure. Was he eeeevil? Nope. Not even a little. Klaus Hauptman in David Weber’s Honorverse books subverted my expectations in a pleasant way. He starts off as a fairly odious antagonist in the first book, but later ends up a staunch ally, which was nice to see.

Another challenge is going (apparently) too far. I recall one book in which one character’s arc ended with death. It was a surprising and gruesome death for a sympathetic and – I thought – primary character. I didn’t read further in the series because of it. I understand the character still plays a fairly significant role in later books, but this wasn’t signaled AT. ALL. Don’t be like that. If you remove a character intending them to play a part, at least let the reader know there’s an afterlife.

The trick, it seems to me, is to ladle subversion with a light hand. One of the major reasons readers stick to the genres and subgenres they like is because of the story beats. A romance where boy and girl don’t end up together won’t sell. A Chosen One fantasy that ends with the Chosen One permanently dead gets dropped on the floor and not finished, assuming it doesn’t make a book shaped hole in the drywall.


  1. Be careful what you ask for… *evil kitty grin*

    One of the things that makes the Tough Guyde to Fantasyland so dang valuable (as well as side-splittingly funny) is that it shows all the tropes and errors that came to dominate fantasy. And with a little tweaking, sci-fi as well: ships that never need fuel or re-fit or repairs, communication across species that is easy, complicated gizmos that work all the time, experiments that always produce a result – good or bad.*

    * Someday I want the Grand Experiment to prove the null hypothesis. And leave both Mad Scientist and Dashing Hero staring at the lab set-up blinking and going, “Well cr-p, we’ll never get a grant for that line of research. Sh-t. I need a beer.”

    1. By virtue of my not being very awake, I misread that as ‘mull hypothesis’ and thought “Well, if you start drinking to solve the problem, I strongly suggest something stronger than beer, according to the front seat views I have witnessed of liquor-fueled solutions…”

    2. Don’t get me started on the problems with the disrespect for experiments which show the null hypothesis. The biggest one is that it gives the scientists a motive to force the experiment to show something. It’s a truism that if you torture the data long enough, eventually it will talk.

      1. I meant hoard. But as she hoards them by working her way up to Commandant, horde is also appropriate. (Then the dragons start asking for… Favors, that will put her hoard in unnecessary danger, because her loyalty to dragons MUST be higher than to a mere HUMAN organization.). And that’s about Chapter three. (Though Old Alexander does warn them to lay off. They assume he just wants more books for HIS hoard, and humans make those faster and more plentifully than dragons. And yes, he’s old even by dragon terms.)

        1. Dragon makes the Marine Corps her hoard… & lays curses so thieves will “become what you steal”?

          Anyone for a game of Orcball?


          1. Mary Gentle did almost exactly that in her book “Grunts”. Dimension-travelling dragon had USMC colors and weapons in its hoard, and that very curse. The orcs were overjoyed.
            It’s a hoot. If you can find it, I recommend.

            1. For clarity, “Grunts” is exactly what I was referencing & that was how I remembered the curse, I had thought the “Orcball” reference would give it away, maybe I should have demanded something “in the name of the Nameless Necromancer”?

              Regarding how the curse defined “steal”, IIRC it was basically a pretty standard dungeon delve, something had killed the dragon, so after thieves employed by the Nameless Necromancer find a way in & disable the obvious traps, the Orcs are sent to retrieve everything that might be a weapon.

              I also recommend reading it, though the humor is perhaps a little dark.

              I suppose I should see if it’s available via Kindle myself, as I gave my DTF copy away several years ago when purging what I would be moving to a “boarding house” residential situation.

              1. This is going to be a bit more straightforward on ‘what constitutes a hoard’. Most dragons HAVE random collections of stuff and they have lots of what we’d consider ‘treasure’ but that’s not typically they’re hoard. (Gold and gems are a byproduct of the fact they leak magic. They shove it in a corner to get it out of the way and find it useful for financing their actual Hoard, but have to be careful not to flood the market so yeah, it tends to pile up.) One dragon has been collecting books since before they were invented. (He’d wander around and collect the stories of anything that would talk to him and write it down.) He LOVES humans. They finally started writing the stories down themselves and now they’re producing faster than ever! He’s in dragon heaven. ALL THE BOOKS. He’s slowly adapting to e-books. Even his Lair has space constraints.

          2. That could get amusing. Especially depending on how the curse defines ‘steal’. On the other hand I’m not sure Dragons in this world do curses of the conventional sort. They have magic coming out their ears (almost literally) but their magical usage is focused on transmutation and heat/fire.

            1. Just to note, while I do (& did) recommend reading Grunts!, I suggest you write your Draconic Marines first. But pretty much everything by Mary Gentle is readable (I started with Rats & Gargoyles, then another one featuring White Crow & Balthazar Casaubon, Ancient Witchbreed[?, IIRC] came later).

              1. Haven’t read the series. This one’s a bit more straightforward. She’s claiming the actual MARINES as her horde. She really wants to work her way up to having ALL of them. I don’t think she’ll get there though.

                1. Well if her “horde” is her “hoard” you’ve got a built-in conflict with the other Dragon’s you mentioned as desiring application of her marines to their problems, since “hoard” implies she’d want them all back (if she was willing to “lend” them out in the 1st place).

                  Your posts have certainly made it look like it could be something interesting to read.

  2. I think I could actually do this. I hand-wash the dishes every other day – it is my favorite “comfort chore”, and it takes 20-25 minutes including counter-wiping. Lots of time to plot things in my head.

    Two questions: Can I change it from three sample chapters to one short story? And can I leave out the “space” part and just make it a kitchen sink fantasy? I’ve already got ideas floating in my mind. 😉

    1. I was the one stuck with cleaning up the mess when the containment field, aka the black base, of our garbage disposal failed last year, contaminating all the cleaning supplies and making a gosh-awful mess on the kitchen floor. You could have real fun with this one!! I’d read it for sure! 😉

  3. “The scientists found that early Eocene temperatures near Lac de Gras were 12 to 17 degrees Celsius warmer than today and that four times as much precipitation fell — conditions not unlike those near the Yangtze River where Metasequoia grows today.” – Lionel Jackson, on the Paleo-Bell River

    …You know, we’re not doing this global warming nearly well enough. Make North America Eocene again!

    Wait, now I have to turn that into 3 chapters and a synopses?

  4. I’ve a dark Isekai light novel concept I might be able to flesh out.

    Come to think of it, my main creative writing project might also fit the description, for all that it happens on Earth. It’s a fanfic, and I’m not starting it until I’ve plotted it using Swain’s method.

    I won’t make the deadline. Also, is there an email to send material to that won’t fit in the comments?

    1. I can but wonder of the particular design of those Model T’s such that centaurs can operate all the pedals (as we think of the Model T). The chocolate bars are worrisome, I must say.

  5. Y’all hurt my soul. It was a device, not un-akin to ending a sentence in the middle when describing cliffhangers. *grumble*

    I’d say I didn’t expect this, and you all did quite well, but A) I’d be lying, and ii) I won’t give you the satisfaction. So, next week: updates. I want to hear how your projects are going. I’ll let you know about Scrap Star Quarry.

  6. One of my favorite subversions was in Weber’s “Safehold” series.

    He actually NAMES a villain the planet’s linguistics-shifted version of “NORMAN BATES”, but within a few books, turns the character sympathetic, then a staunch ally of the heroes, eventually dying trying to shield his wife from a terrorist attack – and that’s only half his story.

  7. Dave Duncan’s _Shadow_ goes wildly off the heroic fantasy rails, but in a strangely plausible way- the protagonist doesn’t get the girl, the knavely prince gets his comeuppance in a rather gruesome manner, and the entire society is disrupted by the end. It’s quite unsettling and not to some people’s taste, but I felt it was well done.

Comments are closed.