As a writer, subverting expectations is the holy grail of narrative trickery. Nobody likes a smart arse, so running with a plot that suddenly turns round and slaps the reader in the chops with a big pile of twisty “what!?” is something we can all aspire to. It’s a great way to keep readers engaged; them not knowing what’s coming next. But it also pulls you away from the formulaic plots that can so often turn readers off, something that genre fiction in particular can fall afoul of quite easily. No matter what you’re writing, or reading, it’s the books that surprise you that you often end up loving the most.
I muse upon this most delightful of artistic turns as spurred by two conversations I overheard within the last year. Both took place in the everyday run of life, paying attention (or not) to my surroundings and hearing the ebb and flow of other people’s lives. Some people call it eaves-dropping. Writers know it’s actually called research. It was my own misplaced expectation that made both situations so funny though.
The first took place in Edinburgh, a sunny day (which means it was probably one of 4 identifiable days last year) where I was wandering down George Street. Given the usual array of suited business folk and leisurely, well-off afternoon shoppers, I was a little surprised to find two young lads (I’m not sure when I got so old I started using the phrase ‘young lads’) wearing tight t-shirts, a scrawl of tattoo’s down pale, skinny arms and baseball caps set at exactly the right angle to apparently look cool but not actually block the sun from their eyes.
As I meandered through the afternoon warmth behind them I chanced to overhear a conversation. I listened in, for research, in case I wanted to pick up some choice language bits for the future. And this is what I heard.
Note. There is swearing. Note. It’s not my fault. Listen to any conversation in Scotland and there’s a 75% chance that people are swearing. It’s why I love the country.
“Aye man, they were just fucking there like,” Red cap says to Blue.
“Wit da ya mean man, like fucking on it and that?” Blue replies to Red.
At this point my pace slows, eager to find out who was on what and what was on who and what Red decided to do about it. I felt for sure someone was going to get in trouble for being on it.
“Aye man, just fucking written on the side, and I had eggs and that so I thought I’d just do it, ya ken?” Red says to Blue.
The plot truly thickened. Who was going to feel the full force of his eggy anger?
“So I got the flour out, ken, and I fucking chucked it all in man, and I whisked aroond an’ that, shoved it in the oven and ken, it was done.” Red says to Blue, waving his arms around to show his excitement.
At this point I’m very confused. I’m not sure what someone could possibly have done that was so heinous they had been put in the oven for it. (Although admittedly not so confused as when I first moved to Scotland and wondered why everyone was always talking about this Ken fella’ all the time).
Blue’s walking slows a little (as mine does behind), perhaps in shock at this revelation. “It was that easy pal?” Blue says to Red.
“Aye man, it came with these wee little dotty cases. And jus’ like that. 12 cupcakes. Fucking magic.” Red beams wide in pride. “And they were pure tasty too man.”
And that’s when my pace quickened. I turned the corner giggling to myself, leaving the proud tattooed baker behind with the incredulous look of his mate staring in wonder.
And see. I loved that tiny story, because it wasn’t what I expected. And that’s how expectations can lead you astray and why subverting them can be so enjoyable; because there’s no way I was expecting a mouth that looked 5 minutes away from a bottle of Buckfast to regale his friend with the triumph of his cupcake making. I’m so very glad he did. And that I was there to hear about it.
The second of the two occasions was possibly even more amusing, mostly because of how exactly it was that my own expectations were built up. I’ll save that one for another time however; get your expectations up perhaps?