8 Reasons To Defy Reader Expectations (and 3 Reasons to Meet Them)

8 Reasons to Defy Reader Expectations

1. Readers like to be surprised. There’s nothing worse than a predictable book. Even if you’re using a standard boy-meets-girl plotline, you have to find ways to make it fresh. If you don’t offer little surprises along the way, the reader is going to be bored. They might finish your piece, but will they come back for more? Doubtful.

2. Actually, readers like to be amazed. The surprises along the way will make readers happy – great turns of phrase, interesting settings, funny or intriguing characters, etc. What readers really like is a plot that keeps them turning the pages. Have you gasped out loud when something happened in a story that you absolutely never saw coming?

3. Word of mouth. People aren’t going to talk up your work if it merely meets their expectations. You need to give people something to talk about. “Tony Noland… is he any good?” “He’s OK.” Please God, no! What you want is for people to say, “He’s amazing! There was this one story where…”. Nobody needs to talk about a story with nothing surprising or unusually engaging.

4. Keep the old, entice the new. Readers discover new writers all the time. They also move on from their old favorite writers if there’s not a good reason to linger. After all, time is limited for all of us. A high percentage of repeat customers is what separates really successful businesses from minimally or marginally successful ones.

5. Continuous improvement. You can always be better at what you do. Your prose could be tighter, your dialogue more gripping, your settings more interesting, your plots more compelling. That’s true for anyone. Once you know what you’re doing, it sets the bar pretty low for yourself if all you’re trying to do is meet expectations.

6. Travel broadens the mind. To defy reader expectations, you have to go to new places in your writing. This kind of experimentation helps you in many ways, not least because it gives you a different perspective on the mainstays of your fiction. Fresh elements and ideas will make your work all the more compelling.

7. New worlds to conquer. Even though you may write perfectly serviceable prose in one genre or style of writing, but you may find that you can truly shine in a different one. Even better, if you already write great fiction in one style, you might be able to expand your empire by doing the same in another style. Then you would just have to decide whether to rule that separate land under a pen name.

8. Stagnation = death. Writing is a creative process. Working to meet reader expectations is valuable work, to be sure, but that can’t be the entirety of writing. When readers already know what they’re going to get from your work, why read it? If you are just turning the dial to crank out another piece like all the others, why write it? Why live that way?

I don't hate you, Reader. This is for your own good. Because I love you.

3 Reasons to Meet Reader Expectations

1. Baseline standards. It’s a rare writer who can ignore readers’ expectations for a readable font and even margins. When you get into proper grammar, spelling, and other mechanics of writing, there’s a bit more latitude, but not much. Consistent characters, stable environments and linear plots are also to be messed with only with caution. Readers generally like to be surprised and amazed, not confused and irritated.

2. Punctuated equilibrium. The fossil record shows that a species can go for a long time without changing, successfully riding out the passing years doing the same thing it’s always done. However, when there is a major shift in the environment, and unfamiliar pressures are put on the species, it can evolve with astonishing rapidity, changing behaviors, biochemistry and fundamental body architecture to survive, adapt and thrive once again. Species that don’t adapt are relegated to occupying niches that resemble the old environment, or they die out completely. I leave the interpretation of this allegory as an exercise for you.

3. Keep the old, entice the new. This one appears twice for a good reason: it’s true. Your readers enjoy your work. Maybe it’s your humorous dialogue, your lush settings, your bloodthirsty monsters or your clever plot twists. Having built up a readership with some measure of loyalty, you need to honor their commitment to you by reciprocating and giving them what they’ll like. Notice that I said, “what they’ll like”, not “what they want”. Readers want more of the same, because they enjoyed what you gave them last time. Of course, part of the reason they liked it is that it defied their expectations.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. Haha, I like that I got thrown under the bus with this post.

    I don't see those as eight independent reasons, Tony. Many sound like rephrasing or extensions of earlier existing reasons, with only the first being a functional internal-prose item. 4. is particularly odd - defying reader expectations can make readers leave you or help them stick around.

    The best argument I've heard against too many surprises and twists actually came from a pro wrestler, Scott D'Amore. "If you keep going against the grain all you get is a crappy piece of wood." Very blunt, but apt. You must build reader expectations and then only go against them where appropriate. Too many and the whole thing is jarring nonsense. Arguably that's the punctuated equilibrium you were espousing.

  2. John: Actually, far from being thrown under the bus, it was your tweet that made me tack on the 3 reasons not to defy expectations.

  3. I don't do allegories, Tony. :) I need things explained clearly. With small words -- and diagrams. (JK. Great article!)

  4. Makes me think of a line from Blackadder.

    "Bums on seats, laddie, bums on seats."

    Basically, give the people want they'll enjoy to get them coming back.

    So yeah, I agree.

  5. Janet: Well, if you expect me to explain, I must apologize in advance for defying the expectation. 8-)

    Icy: In my mission statement, I boiled it down to something just about that basic: I will always leave the reader wanting to come back for more. Not more of exactly the same, though - that way lies "Iron Man 2".

  6. I've started four comments and now I just give up - *laughing* - so I will just say I was here, I read, I nodded on some parts, went hmm on some parts, and uh huh on some parts, and maybe so on some parts and I sipped some coffee and read the comments with an interested quirked up brow and there you go.

  7. Readers generally like to be surprised and amazed, not confused and irritated.

    I found that to be a great summation of your points here, and I'm going to tack it up on a wall in my writing space. Thank you.


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