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.