No writer drafts their novel hoping to trick readers into consuming something they won’t like. But unless we know what type of story we’ve promised during our beginning, our middle or end could make readers feel like they’ve been handed a different book. At best, this makes the story feel lopsided and breaks immersion. At worst, our audience may feel cheated. Let’s cover what a story’s defining characteristics are and how we can change them gracefully.
The Defining Traits of a Story
Audiences expect these aspects to be mostly consistent throughout a story.
Of all defining features, a story’s central cast is probably the most important and the most commonly botched. That’s why I wrote a whole post about character expectations way back in the day. The problem is that everyone has strong feelings about characters, including the storyteller.
Because we roughly control who our audience gets attached to, this is usually okay. By establishing a character as the main character in our opening, we’ve told the audience that they can hang their heart on that person. The catch is that once the audience gets attached, we can’t erase those feelings or transfer them to another character. Inevitably, some storytellers fall in love with a new character partway through writing the story and don’t do the revisions required to make them the main character from the start. Other times, a storyteller just thinks that switching the main character is a clever twist. Either way, their audience will feel cheated by this change.
In narrated work, readers expect that the first viewpoint character is the main character. If the work doesn’t have character viewpoints, the audience will look for the character who is being followed by a real or metaphorical camera. If that person dies or is even just downgraded to a secondary character, the audience could get upset. The longer the opening of the story stays with a character who isn’t the main character, the more alienating it can be when people discover the character they’ve been following isn’t important.
Once the main character is established, they need to play the role a main character is supposed to play – solving the story’s biggest problems, particularly at the climax. If other characters take over the story or someone swoops in to save the day instead of the main character, that won’t be received well.
Luckily, the rules for other characters are more malleable. Audiences should feel the presence of all important characters during the first third of the story. Not only does it feel weird if a central character strolls in halfway through, but also the later you introduce a character, the less time you’ll have to develop them.
Generally, you should avoid making a side character feel important in your opening only to have them fade away later. That doesn’t mean everyone in the beginning has to be critical to the end. However, if they become less important as the book continues, you’ll want to de-emphasize them. Don’t give them a detailed description, don’t spend time getting to know them as a person, don’t make it look like they have unresolved issues to follow up on. Sometimes, you won’t even want to name them.
By worldview, I mean the unique combination of factors that create the environment of the story. That includes:
- World or setting: Your story could be set in a fantasy world, a far-future earth, the underwater ruins of Atlantis, or a small tourist town in the mountains. This comes with expectations about the setting’s scope. Will characters be traveling across the galaxy or staying in the same village?
- Theme: This is the concepts and aesthetics that unify your setting and make it unique. Your tourist mountain town might be kitschy and folksy, your fantasy world might be populated by colorful fairies living in giant flowers, and your far-future earth might be a corporate hellscape of chrome and plastic.
- Atmosphere and tone: Is this a whimsical story where no one gets hurt in a fight, a gritty story where side characters die from stab wounds, or a romantic tragedy where knights and ladies suffer beautifully as they bemoan their fate?
These worldview factors inform audiences where the story takes place, what elements do or don’t appear in the world, how forgiving the universe is, how realistic events will be, and what emotions the story will evoke. This allows them to judge whether your story will deliver the type of experience they want. They might love those flower houses and decide to keep reading, or they might decide the story feels too silly and find something more to their liking.
Just as important, these expectations are what allows audiences to suspend disbelief. If realism is low and characters seem to dodge bullets or race up walls, that will be believable as long as it’s consistent. The same goes for fairies with wings that are obviously too small to hold them up in the air. But once you depict scenes with higher realism, change the tone dramatically, or insert high-tech gadgets in a magical world, anything unrealistic will stand out and the whole story will start feeling invented.
This doesn’t mean the worldview should stay exactly the same. Stories need some variety in mood from scene to scene, and gradually making the worldview a little darker and more serious is also just fine.
The biggest thing that distinguishes a plot of any story is its throughline. We have lots of material on that elsewhere, and your throughline is more about whether specific events match than the type of story you’re telling. Instead, let’s look at the ways your plot influences the general experience you’re offering.
- Internal versus external arcs: While most stories have arcs running the full range of internal to external, the emphasis varies from story to story. Your story might spend the most time on internal character growth, character relationships, or the external problems they face out in the world.
- Types of conflicts: Your character might spend lots of time sneaking around, trying to charm or persuade others, engaging in physical combat, or solving engineering problems. While any story should have variety in conflicts, the palette of conflicts will look different from story to story. One story might include lots of socializing, thievery, and the occasional desperate escape, while another will include lots of fights scenes and struggles to survive in a harsh environment.
- Level of tension: Tension determines the amount of excitement and stress. If the first half of the story is lighthearted character drama and the second half is a struggle to get away as a monster picks people off one by one, the story is delivering two very different levels of tension.
All of these factors will be expected to change as the story continues. The tension should rise and peak at the climax. To raise tension, the plot will often emphasize external arcs and conflicts with higher stakes, such as fight scenes. However, these factors can still change too dramatically. If internal arcs and social conflicts are the dominant experience in the first third of the story, they should still be important in the last third.
Many authors are popular because readers like the style of their narration. That includes everything that makes narration distinct: word choice, personality, tone, amount of description, point of view, etc. Some writers work in lots of jokes, others have a simple style that makes for a breezy read, and yet others write prose that’s graceful and poetic.
Generally, the style should not be perfectly uniform from scene to scene. It may change a little depending on the mood of the moment, and an exciting scene calls for tighter prose than a slow one. Description may also become less necessary as the story proceeds, since more story elements will already be familiar. However, much of a novel’s style should remain consistent.
This becomes an issue when a writer puts lots of energy into wordcraft during their opening and then stops bothering by the end. Depending on the writer, this could mean descriptions or jokes disappear, or it could mean the writing feels increasingly cluttered as the story goes on. Two writers collaborating can also create abrupt style transitions. Copy editing can help even out some aspects of inconsistent prose, but a copy editor won’t write your jokes for you.
While the point of view may shift during the story, readers do expect it to follow the rules you laid out. Those are determined by your narrative premise – the implied explanation for how the story is being told. If you tell readers they’re looking at a personal journal and then switch to an omniscient narrator for the next chapter, they may feel disoriented and annoyed. While this should be avoided, in most cases that won’t be enough for them to put down a good book.
Ways to Transition Gracefully
While audiences will expect consistency by default, that doesn’t mean you can’t change those expectations. If you plan to make big changes in your story, you can avoid misleading your audience by giving them a heads up. The earlier you modify their expectations, the better, but it must be in the first third of the story at least.
The first method still requires consistency, but in this case, you’re adding consistent change. Think of this as setting a trajectory for the story. As long as your audience can see the direction it’s heading, they’ll know roughly what to expect.
Let’s say your story is low tension but high in realism. Your main character is a barista who has relatable problems with unfriendly customers. However, you’d like to make the end tense and surreal – the barista will be descending into a hole in the universe that metaphorically represents their existential anxiety. Instead of a big twist later where your barista is plunged into this metaphorical world, you would start by adding surreal touches to their workday. Maybe each time a customer is mean, another small hole appears, and only the main character can see them. These holes cause problems that raise tension, until eventually there are so many holes in the floor that it crumbles, sending the character falling into the center of the universe.
While you are doing this, you could slowly modify the style of your narration to fit the increasingly tense and surreal experience. The change in style might emphasize how the point-of-view character is succumbing to existential anxiety. However, style should follow substance, so I don’t recommend transitioning your style if no other defining features of the story are changing.
While you can use continuous change to raise the importance of side characters, you can’t use it to change who your main character is. Gradually changing the main character will still make people mad.
In this case, foreshadowing means mentioning future elements so that when they finally appear, they won’t feel out of the blue. Let’s take characters. Whereas the continuous change strategy would mean introducing a background character and then slowly increasing their importance, you could instead foreshadow an important character by bringing up their name several times. This is particularly handy when an important character is off conquering the neighboring kingdom and hasn’t yet arrived to conquer this one. The conqueror might feature in the latest news from abroad or come up during political discussions.
Alternately, perhaps no one knows who is leaving strange marks all over the town, but it’s clear that someone is doing it. Just keep in mind that if you leave a foreshadowed character too mysterious, your audience will expect a big reveal that it’s a character they’ve already met. To avoid this, provide enough details to make it clear this is someone new.
In my example of a barista that ends up falling into a hole in the universe, the idea of that big hole and other surreal metaphors could be explored in a variety of ways. Pictures of it could be featured in art, the character could use it to describe how they feel, or they might see it during their nightmares. However, the hole isn’t the only thing that requires foreshadowing. If the beginning of the story doesn’t have any fantastical elements, it’s also important to foreshadow that the laws of the universe will be broken. Maybe the character starts to believe that reality isn’t what it looks like, and soon its true nature will be revealed. Then the hole appears.
No, this method won’t allow you to change your main character, either. Don’t change your main character.
Take wherever you’re planning to go with your story, and put a few chapters of it in the beginning. Then once you transition out of that and into the beginning you’d previously planned, you can return without breaking expectations.
While adding a chunk to the beginning sounds simple, in practice there are some pitfalls. Foremost, I strongly recommend against adding some prologue-like chapter that has little connection to your opening. This will make your opening hook weaker and test the audience’s patience as they wait for the opening to become relevant. Instead, your new beginning should feature the main character and ideally take place right before your old opening in the timeline. For instance, if the first half of your novel takes place on Earth and the second half on an alien planet, start your main character on that alien planet – or a different alien location – before they go down to Earth.
You also don’t want to jar your audience when you transition to your old opening. The material you add to the beginning should be long enough to establish the importance of the story elements you feature, but short enough that expectations haven’t crystalized. Generally, it should be less than 1/6 of the length of the work.
This method is also not a great match for a big jump in tension. Tension needs to slowly escalate in jagged steps; if you append a really high-tension opening, it’ll make the next stage of your story feel boring. So while my barista facing an existential crisis may have a surreal experience in the opening, they shouldn’t be fighting to escape a galactic hole, lest it transform my coffee shop scenes into a snoozefest.
You can use this method to establish characters who will be important in the later parts of the story, but again, don’t change your main character.
Last, you can establish two different sets of conventions for your story, provided you have an in-story explanation. That includes when the main character:
- Goes to a new world or otherwise enters a different environment
- Falls asleep or gets high
- Plays make-believe
- Experiences flashbacks or flash-forwards
The barista in my example might deal with their normal high-realism job during the day, then once the sun sets, their environment could become surreal and threatening. If placed correctly, these night scenes could still be much higher tension than those during the day. A different set of side characters might also show up at night, though you’d have to avoid putting in so many characters total that they’re hard to keep straight.
Your audience will notice the pattern of when, how often, and for how long you use one set of conventions or the other. Plan to use your secondary set of conventions at least three times total, and spread them out evenly if you can. If you have to vary it somewhat, it won’t be a showstopper. However, you still have to establish the pattern you’re using early in the story.
Okay, yes, you could potentially use this to alternate the primary character without violating expectations. But that doesn’t mean you should. Since this is basically adding another viewpoint, please see my cranky notes on multiple viewpoints. Then whatever you do, make sure the character who plays the biggest role during your climax gets the most screen time, especially in the beginning.
Once you understand what your audience needs, you can do lots of fun and even experimental things. However, an audience can tell the difference between when a writer throws cool things in the story on an impulse and when they put thought into it. Take more time and care with fewer story elements, lest your eyes outgrow your stomach.
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