Spoiler Notice: Difference Engine, Chasing the Star Garden, Lies of Locke Lamora, and Republic of Thieves.*
1. Show How the Bad Guys Never had a Chance
Works like Star Wars and Harry Potter are well remembered for the credible threat posed by their villains. Darth Vader and Voldemort are both extremely powerful, and the audience knows only a real hero can defeat them. A protagonist is measured against the adversity they must overcome, and these Dark Lords are quite the adversity indeed.
But have you ever considered making your villains weak and unthreatening instead? Of course, you don’t want them to appear that way from the beginning; otherwise the uninitiated might not get to the end. Instead, you have to wait until the last possible moment, and then reveal how your bad guys were always going to be defeated, regardless of what the main characters accomplished.
Consider the Difference Engine, a seminal work of the steampunk genre. The bad guys for most of the book are a group of anarchist revolutionaries* plotting to take over London and plunge the British Empire into chaos. Only the protagonist, one Dr. Mallory, and his band of ragtag allies can stop them. Or at least, that’s what the book lets us think. Right when Mallory is about to vanquish the anarchists, the British Army rolls in with overwhelming force and puts a stop to the whole thing.
Only then does the audience realize that nothing Dr. Mallory did mattered, because the revolutionaries would have been stopped anyway. Brilliant! That’ll teach readers to get invested in the story. Now they’ll look back at the rest of the book and wonder what the point was, which is the kind of edgy storytelling we’re after.
2. Repeat Repeat Repeat
Let’s say you’ve already written a story that had good payoff, and it’s too late to make edits. People are already paying money to enjoy it at this very moment, the philistines. Don’t worry, all is not lost. For your sequel, simply repeat the structure and climax of the previous work. Your fans will rush out to get the next story and be dreadfully confused when it feels like they’re reading the same book all over again.
You’ll want to keep the setting and characters, of course. Otherwise the repetitiveness might just be chalked up to there only being so many stories human beings know how to tell. Ideally, put in a time gap to show the characters have moved on with their lives, and then reel them back into the same adventure they had last time.
The Mallorean quintology does this exceptionally well. In the previous Belgariad series, the characters quested across the land, journeying from place to place until they had everything they needed to defeat the dark god. And defeat the dark god they did, fulfilling ancient prophecy and bringing peace to the land. The Mallorean starts out with the rise of a new dark god, and a new prophecy, necessitating the characters to go on another quest across the land, etc.
Readers are left with a wonderfully uneasy feeling. Wasn’t this all resolved the last time? If evil just pops back up every time the hero defeats it, doesn’t that make the whole effort pointless? Of course, the book assures them that this time it’s actually the final battle, not like last time when they thought it was the final battle. Not only does it cheapen the previous books but also it ensures readers won’t be able to fully enjoy the new ones either, because they’ll always have the sneaking suspicion that whatever happens won’t really count. Victory!
3. Have Some Guy Save the Day
Protagonists should have agency; the plot is supposed to hinge on their actions. If they don’t save the day, no one will. If the reader spends an entire book following one person, that person had better be important in the final battle. Or, maybe that’s just what the squares want you to think!
The next time you write a climactic final battle sequence, consider pushing your protagonist to the sidelines. Instead of the main character saving the day, hand the job off to some guy. It doesn’t terribly matter who this guy is, just so long as they’re not the main character. The reader’s expectations will be completely subverted, which is a good thing, right?
In Chasing the Star Garden, the main character is a hedonistic, badass airship racer named Lilly. She’s on a quest to retrieve the goddess Aphrodite’s most important relic on Earth, something only she can do. Opposing her are the Dilettante, a group of British nobles who think everything valuable belongs to them. In the final act, Lilly’s found the relic and she’s making a break for safety, the Dilettante hot on her heels. The stage is set for some thrilling heroics on Lilly’s part.
Instead, she watches as one of her minor allies from earlier swoops in and saves the day. Thanks, some guy! There was no other way to resolve that climax, because reading about protagonists solving their own problems is the last thing anyone wants. I think we can all agree that Star Wars would have been better if Obi Wan had physically manifested inside Luke’s X-Wing, kicked the kid out, and blown up the Death Star himself.
4. Reveal a Secret Everyone Knew
Mystery stories are a tricky balancing act, because you have to give the reader enough information to keep them interested but not enough that they’ll figure it out early. Best case scenario, your reader will get to the big reveal, be completely surprised, and then look back to see how all the pieces fit together. Or, you could just have the secret be something the characters all knew about but refused to mention out loud.
In Lies of Locke Lamora, we’re presented with a quandary. Someone called the Gray King is going after the city’s criminal elite, killing each one no matter how well protected they are. Stories also abound of how the Gray King is impervious to harm, and the protagonists soon find out how true those stories are.
How is the Gray King doing this? That’s the central question for at least half the book. Is he some kind of incredibly clever con-man? Was he someone the dead criminals trusted? Nope, turns out he just had a wizard on his payroll. What makes this really brilliant is that wizards for hire are well known in the book’s setting, but they aren’t mentioned until after the reveal. When faced with the question of how the Gray King was doing impossible things, none of the characters considered he might have hired one of the people who do impossible things for a living.*
While this reveal happens before the book’s actual climax, it does a great job of destroying an otherwise fantastic story’s payoff. Lies of Locke Lamora is a thriller; it depends on big reveals to keep the reader’s interest. After the secret surprise wizard, the rest of the book just doesn’t have the impact it used to. The reader is left wondering what other plot elements will be conveniently resolved by information the characters all knew but forgot to mention. Clearly, this is what you want.
5. Make Your Story Inconsequential
Writing teachers will go on and on that your story has to matter. They’ll say it can matter on a lot of different levels. It can matter on as small a scale as the love life of two people or on the grand stage of galactic politics. What’s important, they’ll say, is that it matters within the stakes you establish.
Naw, what readers really want is a story that didn’t matter at all. In fact, if you can make the protagonist’s adventure a sideshow to what was really going on, it’ll make your reader throw your book down and swear never to read another one. Because they’re so happy.
Republic of Thieves has such a twist, and a real doozy it is. The main characters are hired/coerced by some wizards into helping them win an important election. Sounds like a solid premise for intrigue, until you realize that literally no one in the story cares how this election turns out. The protagonists don’t care; they’re either after a paycheck or being strong-armed into it. The wizards don’t care because they’ll run the city no matter who wins. Even the people in the election only care because they’ve been brainwashed into caring by the wizards.
It turns out the whole election is just a smokescreen for the wizards fighting among themselves, but the book spends almost all its time on the election. The wizard coup and contrecoup happen in the background.
It’s difficult for the reader to care about a story when none of the characters do, so this is perfect. The story will feel like it’s just going through the motions, which most writers would say is a bad thing – but we all know better. After all, every book on this list is popular, so destroying your story’s payoff is clearly a winning strategy.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)