Reading and Writing: Reader Expectations

As I mentioned many times, I love to read out loud to my wife and son. I’ve gotten to share so many books with them over the years, and it’s so much fun to do.

Over the last month, I introduced my son to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In the past few weeks, I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, The Universe, and Everything.

And that’s it. I have to admit I’m not a fan of anything that came after the original trilogy, so we’re stopping there.

This series, originally written and performed as a radio play, works wonderfully as a read-aloud story. There are some funky things done with the spelling of names that I had to stop and explain as it’s not obvious from the pronunciation of the words, but otherwise I had a great time reading the books and my son—who had never encountered the series before—really enjoyed them.

Of course, I can never read a story anymore without part of my brain thinking about the craft that went into the creation of it. And what really stood out to me while reading these three books was Douglas Adams’ excellent use of reader expectations.

Experienced readers are tough to surprise. They’ve seen it all before—the tropes, the twists, the characters, the three-act structure, the misunderstandings, and the resolutions. Really savvy readers will almost always see what you’re going to do before you do it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy the story, but it takes a lot to surprise a reader these days.

The best way to do that is to play with their expectations.

Douglas Adams was a master of this technique. It starts right away, in the prologue.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

And you think that this is introducing the girl, and the story might just be her story, about how she makes the world a better place. But then…

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

And finally…

This is not her story.

That’s just a taste of how Adams plays with the reader. This same technique plays out in some form in almost every conversation Arthur Dent has with Ford Prefect, for example. It’s what makes reading these exchanges so wonderful.

“All right,” said Ford. “How would you react if I said that I’m not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?”

Arthur shrugged in a so-so sort of way.

“I don’t know,” he said, taking a pull of beer. “Why, do you think it’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say?”

In most of these cases, the words spoken and the questions asked are taken completely literally by the character hearing them. In the above exchange, for example, Arthur reacts to the question that Ford literally asks, “How would you react if I said [a particular thing]?” And his answer addresses that question, and only that question, completely ignoring the [particular thing] that Ford was really trying to get across.

In other instances, he takes something with which most people are familiar, and adds an unexpected twist to it.

“No, don’t move,” he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, “you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

It’s been mentioned to me by a number of different people that they didn’t get this joke the first time they read or heard it. I didn’t get it the first time either. If this is your first time with it, give it some thought…it’ll come.

These kinds of conversations and events occur with great regularity throughout the books. Adams takes a common phrase, or an overused trope, and then sees if there is a way to use it literally, and what the literal words actually mean. It helps the reader get into the mindset of the protagonist, Arthur Dent, who is completely out of his element throughout the entirety of all three books.

Douglas Adams used this technique for comedic effect, of course. But the same technique—playing with readers’ expectations and then throwing them off balance—can be used in more dramatic storytelling as well.

One of the more famous examples is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It’s a common element in fantasy stories that the protagonist(s) generally survive to the end of the story. But Martin took the “life is cheap” trope literally, and decided that the vast majority of his main characters were expendable. Many seemingly essential characters have died throughout the novels, and it led to the feeling among readers that almost anything could happen, and the ending was always in question.

Obviously, that’s a large-scale example of playing with expectations. This can also occur on a smaller scale, and it’s often used to keep the reader off-balance, or to disturb them.

In my own novel, The Tower of Dust, the character Sulid and his friend Weese discuss a place where Weese works called The Black Door. I hint that this “club” uses boys and girls without going into any detail about what disturbing things go on in there. I’ve been told by a number of readers that they had very specific expectations about what was happening, and when Sulid finds himself inside and sees for himself what is really going on, the readers were thrown completely off-balance. It made the entire situation even more disturbing, because the readers had prepared themselves for what they thought Sulid would see, but that left them open to something completely different.

Conclusion

So my son enjoyed laughing at the absurdities of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original trilogy, and I loved reading these again. They are pretty short books, and we managed to get through all three of them rather quickly.

Douglas Adams was a great writer who obviously loved playing with language and with reader expectations. It’s one thing to have a big plot twist in a novel, but Adams managed to keep readers off-balance in an enjoyable and quirky way by playing with expectations constantly throughout the stories. I’m a big fan of writers who can play with language like that, but there are lessons to be learned from his techniques in many other ways as well.

Next on the reading-aloud list is a rather long story by Roger Zelazny, The Chronicles of Amber. Though I will probably stop at the end of the Corwin cycle, it’s still a five-book epic and will take us much more time to get through than the Hitchhiker’s trilogy did.

Take care and see you next week.

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