Great Expectations

And how to subvert them

No, I’m not talking about THAT Great Expectations. I’m talking about what your readers expect your story to be and how this can be used to create tension, add surprise, and entertain.

Expectation according to Alfred Hitchcock

Strangers on a train still
© Warner Brothers, Inc.

Hitchcock famously gave an example of suspense by describing a scene where two characters chat calmly while a bomb is ticking away under their table. Surprise, he said, is when nobody, not the characters, not the audience, knows there is a bomb. When it goes off, they are startled.

Suspense, on the other hand, is when the film shows the bomb to the audience and lets them watch the oblivious conversationalists as the seconds tick inexorably toward the expected, obliterative moment.

Expectation according to Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Tarantino

In the brilliant Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino chooses not to show any bomb at all. He KNOWS the audience is fully aware of the bomb: the Manson Family and the Tate–LaBianca murders. He doesn’t have to tell us the murders will happen because we know they will. He, instead, introduces us to Sharon Tate and her friends, lets us bask in the charming warmth of their silly and very human lives, and introduces a ticking clock.

As we watch the time get closer, we expect the bloody, grisly murders because not only does Tarantino know we know what is meant to happen, but he knows we know his style, and his style is bloody and grisly.

And then… he SUBVERTS our expectations. He gives us an alternate reality that is, yes, bloody and grisly, but so immensely satisfying that it feels like the reality we know actually happened was the nightmare, and this, this outrageous orgy of blood in front of us, is the accurate, and just, history.

The breathtaking genius of this approach is that he lets the audience do the work for him. He lets us put the bomb under the table and wait for it to explode, while making us fall in love with the people we know are about to die horribly. And then he does something else.

How to Use Reader Expectations to Increase Suspense

I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought as I work on my current WIP. In sharing it with readers, people who are fellow writers, who know me well, I was deeply surprised to see their expectations of my characters. I’m writing about a time and place somewhat unfamiliar to most readers. I was startled to see that people automatically assumed my characters were drug addicts, promiscuous, social outcasts, and, in general, losers, because of how they looked and where they lived. I never STATED that my characters took drugs or were promiscuous. In fact, all of my characters are college students and several of them abstain from drugs and alcohol on principle.

But the idea of reader expectations took hold of me and gripped hard. It’s important both ways–you don’t want your readers to make UNEXPECTED assumptions, and if you think they might, then what you do with those assumptions must work for the benefit of the story.

Three Suggestions

  1. Beta readers!
    Yes, there have been many posts on this blog about the importance of beta readers, but that’s because their importance cannot be underestimated. Make sure you have at least one, and preferably two who are not just like you.
    • If you are a lawyer, writing a legal thriller, make sure you have several beta readers who have no idea what goes on in a courtroom or what a deposition is, or… anything.
    • If you’re writing about a subculture, as I am, make sure your beta readers never lived it. Seriously. This is crucial.
  2. Create a profile of your target reader.
    Yes, I know we all think we want EVERYONE to be our target reader, but that’s just not reality. For the most part, if you’re a writer reading this, you are probably writing some kind of crime fiction, and your target audience looks something like this. This report is illuminating as well

    Consider the bullet points below:
    • 66% of all crime/mystery readers are women
    • 75% of all crime/mystery readers are over 55.
    • Most live outside urban areas.
  3. Now ask yourself some questions
    • What will my target reader’s assumptions be about my character? Create tension by using this to put the character into an inherently unbalanced situation, without having to explain (because your reader will already be there with you)!
    • Assumptions about my setting? Ditto
    • What will my reader already know so well I won’t need to mention it at all, but might be able to subvert and surprise them with?
    • What will they probably not understand, and I will need to show it to them? Entertainment value is added when you give a reader a delicious new experience.
    • What will they enjoy being shown because it’s outside of their sphere of experience? Ditto
    • What will they hate seeing because of their sphere of experience? Trust me, readers really hate some stuff as a group. It’s useful to be aware of these things, and before I go ahead and make any lists, go and read reader reviews of books in your genre. You will quickly see what seems to attract universal condemnation. Okay, this can be used to create tension, but walk this line carefully lest your book is thrown against the wall.

I know, a lot of this is generalization. But it’s generalization based on research and thinking; and knowing your audience and writing for them is better than writing in the dark. Or expecting them to understand your characters and your setting if its different from their setting and experience. Some authors get this instinctively. Others, like me, need to put more effort into creating accessible, relatable, suspenseful and enjoyably subversive narratives.

What do you think?

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. What an excellent primer for crime writers, Emilya. You hit all the things we need to take into account and some I need to go back and consider in my WIP.

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