Story design and readers’ expectations

What makes a story a compelling read that the reader cannot put down? Is it the story idea at the heart of the story? Or is it the way the story is executed? Great writers, of course, do both. But creating the readers expectations about the book and delivering what they want must be of core importance to the reader’s experience.

Adrienne Bell in Plot MD, sets out three core ways a writer can write a compelling story:

  1. Setting expectations of your readers early, and ensuring they are met by the end of the book.
  2. Creating a relatable set of dilemmas that your audience can invest in.
  3. Setting up a connected flow of actions and consequences that pull the reader through the story rather than pushing them along.

Why are expectations so important? From the moment a reader picks up a book, the writer is creating expectations. The cover, the title, the blurb and genre will all influence the reader’s expectations. And after only a few pages they will understand the type of story they are looking at from the the type of journey the protagonist or protagonists are taking, e.g.:

  1. A single protagonist or team journey
  2. A romance or buddy journey
  3. An epic multi-protagonist story.

Each type of story journey has its own patterns. The ‘Hero’s journey’ may well relevant to the single protagonist journey, but it is by no means the only one. Romance and buddy journey stories have their own patterns and tropes.

A writer can also influence reader expectations by:

  1. Foreshadowing. Everyone has heard of Chekov’s gun. If a gun is discovered in the first scene of a crime novel, it will almost certainly be fired later. The same was true of James Bond’s gadgets, which invariably got him out of a tight spot later in the plot.
  2. Setting up the protagonist for a fall is another technique. The protagonist declares they will always or never do something sets them up a future u-turn. Set ups and payoffs are familiar technique to screen writers. Remember Indiana Jones and his hatred of snakes and how he ends up in a snake pit.
  3. Signalling how a negative trait impinges on the protagonists current life signals what they will need to overcome by the end of the story. Bell believes readers instinctively know what the writer is setting up.

Bell also discusses other promises the writer makes about the future outcome of the story and expect justice to be meted out to characters with moral shortcomings. She calls them debts, which have to be repaid, because the idea of justice is central to storytelling. Bell asserts that reader’s sub consciously understand these promises and fully expect to see them paid off. It’s all about fictional Karma.

Dilemmas

Why are dilemmas so important to the storyline and character development? The dilemmas a protagonist faces and the choices they make are at the heart of story telling. Bell explains as follows:

Because creating an organized set of relatable dilemmas that are intimately tied to your protagonist’s character arc is what allows you to take the power of conflict and translate it into action on the page…. As long as the audience can relate to the emotional core of the dilemmas and decisions, they will find themselves connecting to every other aspect of your story, no matter how unfamiliar they might be….

Bell is not the first to understand the importance of getting an audience to empathise with the protagonist. Blake Snyder named his book “Save the cat” on the important of creating empathy for the protagonist by relatively small noble actions. The difference is Bell’s approach is that empathy is more about the relating to the dilemmas the protagonist is facing. I have to agree.

The flow of actions and consequences.

Bell suggest that story planning should be around the meaningful decision characters make rather than around scenes. Certainly this kind of approach helps to focus attention on the big decisions the protagonist makes.

If you set up your story around a central conflict, a series of dilemmas will spring up. When your characters come face-to-face with these dilemmas, they will be forced to make decisions. Those decisions will have consequences, which will force your characters to face more dilemmas, which will lead to more decisions, which will lead to….

Consequently, meaningful decisions create a chain of action and consequences that are at the core of the story.

Bell designed a worksheet using four funnels for Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2B and Act 3 to show how each decision made by the protagonist constricts the future choices they can make as they move along in their journey. She looks at three key decisions for each funnel. Therefore there are twelve key decisions in all. Some of these decisions may well connect to the five big turning points in the story: the inciting incident/catalyst, Plot point 1 at the end of Act 1, the mid point, Plot Point 2 at then end of Act 2, and the Climax. But this still leaves seven, most of which will be in Act 2. Copies Bells worksheet are available from her website.

Clearly, there are many different ways the narrative of a story can be analysed. For example breaking the story down into Acts, Sequences, Step Outline, Scenes, and Beats and by identifying Turning Points and Reveals. Key Decisions are just another way of doing it. Analysing the structure of a narrative once it is written is relatively easy. The key issue is what approach best works from a planning perspective before the narrative is written. As with most things in writing, this is a matter of personal preference. It’s what works for you that matters.

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