Expectations vs. Reality: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 1)

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I don’t know about you, but I love reading a good dramatic story. I also love writing a good dramatic story—sometimes to the point where I have to stop myself from adding too much tension and angst so not to obscure the themes or verge into indulgence. That was especially true earlier in my writing journey; I once remember creating a story where the entire main cast died purely because of the ~tragedy~ and the effect it would have on their children (I was in my early teens, so don’t judge). But even though I am now much more moderate when it comes to theatrics, it’s still easy to resort to similar techniques when a story is in need of a plot twist, a jolt of energy, or a more interesting relationship dynamic. The advice to “drop a body from the ceiling” when you aren’t sure what to do next can be taken too literally—most stories cannot sustain so many dead bodies or even one dead body, either because it messes with the tone and theme or the story does not have the space to delve deeply into the effects of death. And while physical difficulties like injuries, interference with travel plans, severe weather, or threats to safety can take care of a lot of the necessary external pressure that creates good drama, those options seem more limiting than helpful if a story does not include a lot of movement, action, or violence.

Without physical threats or death, what else is left to create drama? There are many—too many for me to write about—but lately I’ve come to rely upon two techniques to raise tension and add interest that don’t include death: expectations vs. reality (today’s post) and alternative forms of loss/grief (next post). Not only are these techniques great compliments to stories that employ physical danger and/or character deaths, but they often can sustain a tale all on their own.

Using “expectations vs. reality” is a technique that I’ve noticed a lot while reading or watching mysteries. Many television crime procedural dramas and period mystery series set up the preliminary crime scene to make it appear as if certain characters were involved in the murder or crime, but then slowly reveal that other evidence points away from that person and toward something (or someone) more complex. This is usually a form of a “red herring” (something that distracts attention from the real issue)–but I would define my technique a bit differently. The goal of “expectations vs. reality” is not so much to distract from an important clue or suspicious action but to get the characters and the reader to expect something different than what is truly going on. This is not the same as purposely trying to “subvert tropes” or creating a plot twist that isn’t logical, either—wrong suppositions about a situation, person, or thing have to be grounded in facts that are either simply wrong (but believed/believable) or partly true.

A great example of this is from Pride and Prejudice, where Lizzie spends much of the novel believing wrong ideas about Darcy and Wickham because of a) specific experiences, b) prejudices and perspective, and c) information that was not completely true. All combined, her perception turns out to be quite different from reality—and for first-time readers or watchers, their opinion of the two men often mirrors Lizzie’s pretty closely. Austen didn’t need to use physical threats or death to keep readers hooked: she employed “expectations vs. reality,” along with playing with the cultural context of that period and the foibles of human nature, to create a compelling story. Austen uses the same techniques in most of her books, such as Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and the same technique is also present in lesser degrees in other books like Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Remains of the Day, and Till We Have Faces. Additionally, the same effect is often achieved when authors write stories from the point-of-view of unreliable narrators (like The Remains of the Day) or innocent, ignorant, naïve narrators. In its most basic form, “expectations vs. reality” can simply be setting up a story to where readers naturally will assume certain events will happen, and then revealing unexpected (not necessarily good or bad) information that goes against the usual mental shortcuts or stereotypes we use.

However the affect is achieved, disrupting expectations with reality can significantly affect not only readers but also characters, who now have to grapple with the truth of whatever situation had been perceived incorrectly. They may feel guilt or shame over having acted upon incorrect information and causing damage to themselves or others; they may be shocked, horrified, or grieved to learn that a person, place, or event was not as good and moral as they once believed; they may have to reconsider their plan for a career, relationship, or other story goal; their worldview may be shaken and have to be re-established after introspection, conversations, or prayer; they may have to finally confront and accept an unpleasant truth about someone they love; or they may simply have to deal with the disappointment or hurt that comes when a planned event or conversation goes poorly. Reality can also bring joy or relief—a character’s illness is not fatal; a character who was thought to have betrayed everyone did not in fact betray them; a coming event is not as damaging or dangerous as predictions foretold; the family dinner turns out to be pleasant instead of awkward or stressful; or a generally mundane, routine event turns out to hold something wonderful instead.

There are too many examples of specific ways to achieve “expectations vs. reality” to cover, but that’s part of the beauty of the technique: no matter what type of story you’re writing, no matter how large or how small a conversation, situation, or scene is, you can set up expectations and intercept them with unexpected-but-logical realities to create plot twists that aren’t gruesome, violent, or action-packed. These moments of realization can strengthen a story to where its gruesome moments do not need to overtake everything to be powerful, can strengthen a story all on their own, provoking surprise and thoughtfulness from characters and readers alike, and can be dramatic, shocking, joyful, gentle, or a combination of many reactions. If nothing else, “expectations vs. reality” opens the door for complex emotion that drive a story forward that doesn’t have to rely upon shock value or violence to be meaningful. Even for those of us who love a good dose of drama, a little balance in how stories create plot twists, conflict, and intrigue is always a good idea.

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