Friday, September 7, 2012

Busted!—Alice Eve Cohen Caught Messing with Reader Expectation

One of my favorite descriptions of sound storytelling structure comes from Peter Rubie and Gary Provost’s How to Tell a Story—The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales:
Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he so strenuously sought, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in the past.  
Such a story works because of the way it plays with reader expectation. When an event dashes the expectations of a character we care about, the reader expects he will ultimately succeed when he pursues his goal to set things right. Since the stakes for failure are high, we flip the pages, wondering what he’ll do in the face of those forces trying to stop him.

When all of these storytelling elements come together in real life—and an author recognizes that—they can combine to create one heck of a memoir. What I Thought I Knew is a case in point.

At age forty-four Alice Eve Cohen started experiencing mysterious symptoms (“something happened”), including a large, hard lump in her abdomen, that made her want to get well (“pursued a goal”). For help she turned to a string of medical professionals ("devised a plan of action"), but none of them agreed on either the diagnosis or the treatment ("forces trying to stop her").

First she was told she was in early menopause after 14 years on hormone replacement therapy, that she had sore breasts from wearing underwire bras, and that she had a bladder disorder.

Months of invasive tests using x-rays, dyes, and internal exams followed. One doctor prescribed a vacation and encouraged her to drink a lot of wine and relax.

When the lump kept growing, a doctor convinced her of a devastating conclusion: it’s a tumor.

An emergency CT scan revealed there was indeed “a lot at stake”: unbelievably, since she was diagnosed early on in life as infertile, Cohen is told she’s six months pregnant.

She’s expected to be happy.

She’s told it’s a boy. No, a girl. Wait—they can’t be sure, there could be significant deformities.

Things seem “as bad as they could get.” Offered the diagnosis “she so strenuously sought,” Cohen must “decide whether or not to take it”—her first thought is abortion, but her case has been so royally bungled that it’s too late to conduct one legally.

Through a series of lists that help her review the unfolding facts and the new realities to which she must adjust, Cohen’s memoir drives home the basis of riveting storytelling: as shifting expectations rock her world, they tip the reader deeper and deeper into her story.

She honors this connection by reaching beyond complaints about botched diagnoses to explore deeper expectations of parenting and love and what our lives will be like.

As a writer, reading this memoir is bound to leave you understanding more about how to raise reader expectation. As a human being, it will illuminate how to adapt to the quickly changing circumstances of life.

How does your work in progress mess with the protagonist's—and the reader's—expectations?

Kathryn Craft writes women's fiction and memoir, and specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say (for those of you who are Trekkies). Now about your questions…

    Messing with my protagonist means keeping her love life just beyond her reach. Messing with my other protagonist means keeping his love life just out of his reach…and the location of his beloved son an ongoing mystery. Messing with my third protagonist—you get the picture. Messing with the reader is exactly the same thing.

    So tell me about Alice and her baby. Was it a boy or girl? Did it survive the Maelstrom of medical blunders? How is she doing now? I suppose you're going to tell me that I have to buy the book. :-)

  2. Thanks for those examples, Linda! And I fear you guessed right—I know a couple of people reading this now who'd shoot me if I gave away how it all works out for the author. :-/

  3. I'm sitting here with my jaw on the floor, even though I shouldn't be surprised that the medical establishment would make such a bungle. Poor woman. And poor child.

  4. This sounds like a fantastic memoir! I can't even imagine the ending. Must read then. Since you won't spill. ;)

  5. Thanks Elle, Dani and Morgan. I ate this memoir right up then thought, why? It's because its storytelling bones were all there. Structure really works to hold up a story.

  6. Isn't it interesting, Kathryn, that so much goes on behind the scenes to create what appears to the reader to be a seemlessly flawless story. If only they knew!

  7. Wow! What a great story if it were fiction, how heart-wrenching to have it be true!


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