A while ago, while flipping through craft books at Barnes and Noble, I stumbled upon Jane Cleland’s TRD method (along with her Plotting Road Map) in Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats. Ever since then, I’ve been trying figure out how to incorporate TRDs — Twists, Reversals, and moments of heightened Danger — into my plotting and writing. But I think I finally figured it out.
In order to build up to a TRD, there needs to be a setup.
But what specifically needs to be set up?
I realized this last night as I was going to sleep. In order for there to be a TRD, there has to be an expectation about how things are going to play out, either from the character or from the audience. And since the audience is living the story through the character, then one can simply just focus on the character.
The character is trying to complete a task. Which means they have a certain expectation about how things are going to play out. That expectation comes from their personality as well as what they know about the thing they’re going to interact with, whether it’s a person, a system, an organization, or an object. The character builds an expectation based on how they feel — about themselves and the world around them — and on what they think — of the thing they’re about to interact with.
Then, based on their fears, their thoughts, and their values, the character sets out to complete a task with certain expectations. Then, something happens that subverts their expectations in one of three ways: either something different than what they expected happens (a Twist), something that’s the complete opposite of what they expected happens (a Reversal), or something happens that makes things even worse than they expected (a moment of heightened Danger). So, in order to build up to the TRD, it has to be clear what the character is expecting to happen when they set out to complete a task.
So the question becomes, how do you show what the character is expecting?
There are a number of ways, I suppose. One would be to just show the character thinking about what they think could happen. They could be on their way to complete the task, and trying to figure out how they’re going to deal with what they think is going to happen. Their actions while in transit could also show what they think will happen.
Another way would be to show the character planning for the task, which would show how they expect things to go based on what contingencies they put in place. Maybe they overload the plan, expecting everything to go wrong. Or maybe they just lay out a minimal amount of planning because they expect everyone to get their jobs done. Then, while the characters are enacting the plan, their expectations for how things will play out are clear in how closely they stick to the plan, or in how careful they are while carrying out their part of the mission.
Yet another way to show character expectations is to have them act or talk as if their expected outcome as already happened. Maybe they think that something is a sure thing, so they boast about it to their friends, or make new plans on the assumption that the expected outcome is set in stone. Then the TRD comes when they learn that they were wrong. And that also creates or raises stakes for the character, since now they’ve got to find a way to compensate for their error in judgment.
With all of this comes the need to show how and why the character has arrived at the expectations they have for the outcome of the task they need to complete. This happens in setup, either for the story, or for the specific task at hand. The audience would need to know certain things about the character, in order for their expectations to make sense. What is the character like on an everyday basis? How do they view the world, and what do they think is possible — and impossible — for themselves?
If the story is based in our world, that can give us a bit of a headstart in terms of setting up a worldview, since we could draw on our common understanding of how our world works and how we move through it as regular people. But if we’re talking about a speculative world, then there’s a little more work to be done.
What is considered a regular person in this world, and how do they differ from “irregular” people? What can a regular person hope to achieve in the eyes of your characters, and what would be “impossible” for them? What about magic or technology or alien species or wild animals in your speculative world? Part of the reason why setting up the rules for a magic system or piece of technology in a story is to set up how the characters can plausibly expect those things to work. That way, when something unexpected does happen, we are just as surprised as the character without being pulled out of the story because of plot holes.
So, to sum this all up, in order to subvert expectations, someone has to be expecting something to begin with. Setting up those expectations comes from the characters as they set out to complete a task or achieve a goal. And those expectations arise from the character’s worldview and self-image, as well as any knowledge they may have of who or what they’ll be interacting with in order to achieve the task. Basically, in order for there to be a payoff, there has to be a setup.
Makes sense, doesn’t it?