There are various ways fiction writers can play with reader expectations as they try to make their work more interesting.
Obviously, one approach is to create an ironic and/or surprise conclusion a la O. Henry — who was a master of that in tales such as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.” Readers will certainly want to keep reading a writer who offers story-line stunners.
Other short stories with major jolts at the end include “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Proof Positive” by Graham Greene, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” by Edgar Allan Poe, to name just a few.
Another way to intrigue readers is to mix in poetry, letters, lists, newspaper clippings, author drawings, and/or other content amid traditional text. That’s the case with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, various novels by writer/doodler Kurt Vonnegut, and so on. (In Goethe’s day, novels with letters were fairly common.)
As I wrote in a past post, some authors also shake things up by including small amounts of whimsical humor in what are mostly dead-serious novels — such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This can surprise readers as well as give them a little breather that helps them better appreciate the rest of the great-but-depressing prose.
Yet another way of using unpredictability to draw readers in is to juxtapose a sad or partly sad plot line with an idyllic setting — say, Paris. Much of the French capital is of course beautiful and romantic, yet I can think of few very upbeat works set in “The City of Light.”
Instead, I think of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (with the struggling Jean Valjean) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with the unhappy Quasimodo). Or Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (with frustrated painter Claude Lantier) and The Ladies’ Delight (which has a love story but mainly depicts the “Walmartization” of a 19th-century Paris neighborhood).
Or Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau (with its affluent title character duped into losing so much money he may or may not be able to repay his debts), Colette’s The Vagabond (about the often-tough life of vaudeville performer Renee Nere), and J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (whose Lalla protagonist has some success in Paris but misses her native Morocco).
Non-French authors also depict Paris as a place with the potential for heartache. For instance, Henry James chronicles Christopher Newman’s difficult effort to marry a French woman in The American, Edith Wharton sets up the possibility of a happy or unhappy Paris ending in the mostly New York-set The Age of Innocence, and James Baldwin depicts a visiting American struggling with his gay identity (among other things) in Giovanni’s Room.
Without divulging too much about plot lines ( 🙂 ), can you name additional literary works that play with reader expectations in the ways I mentioned in this post? Also, in what other ways do authors shake up readers, and which literary works exemplify those other ways? And, heck, if you don’t want to deal with those two questions, I’d be happy to hear the titles of other novels set in Paris!
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