Many times I’ve reminded writers that one of a writer’s primary tasks is to satisfy the reader. I’ve also stressed that including genre conventions is necessary to meet reader expectations—some readers come to a particular genre searching for the genre elements that make a book enjoyable and satisfying to them. They read a particular genre expecting to find certain story elements. And yet at the same time, stories shouldn’t be predictable. Readers don’t want the same story, they just want some of the standard ingredients that make great stories great. Beyond that, they do want new. And they definitely like being surprised.
Readers like satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they want only the same plot or character types again and again. Satisfaction, soul-deep satisfaction, comes through universal truth that pierces the heart. For some of us, such truth may be recognized only when it’s presented in a new way, through a new voice or with a different approach. We love those aha moments, those times when fiction speaks to us or moves us. But that doesn’t happen for most readers if the story they’re reading now is the same by every measure as the previous one.
Elements that are new or fresh or surprising grab our attention and help us notice what we’ve never noticed before. The truth might have been hanging around for centuries or millennia, but until we take it in and understand it, it means nothing. If we don’t get it, whatever the truth is, it won’t move us. Not to tears or to action.
The good news for writers is that there are many, many ways to include unexpected and satisfying wonders in story. A character can surprise and delight. A plot may go in an unexpected direction, requiring all the reader’s attention. Dialogue may enchant readers, creating an unexpected affinity between those readers and a story and its characters.
Mood and the emotional impact might be what surprises readers, twining around them and grabbing hold in ways that change those readers. A philosophy presented through the characters may open a reader’s eyes. Even word choice could be a wonder, a delightful, captivating, stirring mix of poetry and prose that shakes a reader from complacency or boredom.
If the expected parts of the story satisfy, meeting the reader’s needs, and then a mysterious, wondrous element complements the expected elements, a reader gets it all, gets the complete package from a story. Satisfy your readers’ expectations, but not at the expense of surprising them. Meet the needs they don’t even know they have. Meet the needs that your stories raise in them.
Our task is to engage the reader in every way, to tap into the mind, the dreams, the memories, the fears, and the imagination of our readers. Our task is to present vibrant truth, yet not in a tired way that rehashes that truth, dulling what should be arresting so that readers no longer pay attention. We should be creating with a fresh approach that has readers sitting up and noticing.