One of the things I encounter a lot among other writers is a fear of violating readers’ expectations, particularly when dealing with speculative fiction (genre fiction). In terms of genre, it seems to me more a question of marketability than of readers’ taste. Frankly, in that sense, I’m annoyed by the whole idea that writers should restrict themselves to a standardized format for a genre. If your plot, world, characters, and interactions are all dictated by a set of genre rules, I feel like, “Well, what’s the point writing it? There’s no room for originality and it’s all been done a million times over.” I suppose the answer is, “Because one can make money writing it,” but that’s not all writing is to me. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I’ll say here and now that artistic integrity is important to me both as a writer and as a reader. I don’t condone using that integrity as an excuse for being exclusive and purposely inaccessible with your style, either – bad writing is bad writing, and being artsy just so you can pat yourself on the back for being clever rarely produces anything decent, let alone excellent.
Okay, end that rant.
Back to the point. A far more compelling question, to me, is whether violating readers’ expectations is a good thing or a bad thing in a broader sense – in the sense of just plain storytelling and good character development. Good characters do surprise your readers sometimes, and good plots aren’t predictable or humdrum. So obviously you need to jerk your readers around to some degree, but you don’t want them to feel cheated. That’s the meat of the issue, really. How do you fulfill your readers’ need for resolution and avoid unpredictability that feels unrealistic, while simultaneously keeping the plot and the characters fresh and the readers on their toes?
Since I’m a reader who loves to be surprised (my favorite characters are the ones I feel like I know personally, yet am never sure what they’ll do from one scene to another), I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this particular question. The key, I think, lies in planting hints, doubts, and questions. The story can build toward a logical outcome, giving the reader a sense of what “should” happen next, but if little clues and inklings of uncertainty are thrown in (and they can be quite subtle and still work!) then the reader wonders if the logical outcome will come through or not, or if there will be more problems than the characters are expecting based on what they know so far. That makes readers edgy, and that’s a good thing. You want edgy readers. Edgy means they’re interested.
You can raise doubts and plant hints with just a word or a phrase here and there, and sometimes the more subtle the building questions are the better. If you can work that kind of thing in without being overt about it, it’s all the stronger when those doubts come to the surface in the action. You can use foreshadowing, carefully chosen metaphors (use negative comparisons to bring out worries and fears), dialogue (especially a character cross-questioning another, or one character’s internal emotional reaction to something another character says aloud), characters’ body language…there’s a plethora of little things you can do to hint at something going on beneath the surface. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a stellar example of a plot and a set of characters that are continually unpredictable, yet believable within its context every step (and mis-step!) of the way. There are a billion examples popping into my mind right now, but I’ll leave it at one, for the moment and just add the rest to my recommendations page (whenever I get back around to adding to that!)