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In my action/adventure story, the two main protagonists are rescuing the injured victim and escaping the dungeon. (Or jail cell. Or whatever.) Once the protagonists have rescued the victim, I want to surprise the readers with a betrayal--the victim was working for the bad guys all along, and leaves the protagonists trapped. (Think Elsa Schneider betraying Indy in The Last Crusade.)

The only problem is I'm pretty sure readers would see it coming from a mile away. How can I set it up so that the readers are surprised, and only in retrospect does it look obvious? Do I have to distract the readers? Can I make them come to the conclusion that the character is a good guy?

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    Whatever you do, don't call that chapter Surprise Betrayal. – Misha R Sep 8 '15 at 5:42
  • I might call it "Rescue" since the victim is rescued by the bad guys from the protagonists, but at the start the goal is for the protagonists to rescue the victim from the bad guys. – whiterook6 Sep 8 '15 at 5:50
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Give the victim a reason to betray the good guys.

Make the victim a rounded character. Give him or her motivation, backstory, and personality. The reader may not see all the backstory you've created, but you as the author should know what it is, and write the person accordingly.

Maybe the victim is being blackmailed by the bad guy and is genuinely sorry to trap the good guys. Maybe the victim is the bad guy's secret sibling/spouse/servant/child. Maybe the victim owes the bad guy something, and trapping the good guys is just business, nothing personal — it's a favor to the bad guy.

Whatever the victim's reason, remember: Each of us is the hero of our own story. Consider from the victim's perspective why s/he would do such a thing, and why s/he would want to hide his/her motivations from the good guys. That's how you can set up the surprise.

  • I like this. To see if I understand, give the victim a more full-bodied character with motivation to side with the badguys (or against the goodguys).However, do I show that backstory (or part of it) before the betrayal, or after? On the one hand, I'd expect for the betrayal to make sense in retrospect, the readers have to understand how it connects to the backstory; but on the other hand if they know the whole backstory then they'll see it coming. How do I balance that? – whiterook6 Sep 11 '15 at 4:37
  • @whiterook6 If it's a "surprise" betrayal, then the readers can't know the backstory beforehand, can they? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 12 '15 at 13:52
  • Then how does giving the victim a reason to betray the good guys make it more fulfilling for the readers if they don't know? – whiterook6 Sep 12 '15 at 16:37
  • @whiterook6 You as the writer need to know the backstory and motivations of all your characters. This shapes them and dictates their actions and reactions. You have to set up Victim's actions so that on the surface (first read) they seem innocent (a suggestion to go here, buying that object, sending a message to so-and-so), but in retrospect have another meaning. Victim won't go in a shop claiming the spices give her a headache, but actually the owner will recognize her as Bad Guy's sister -- that kind of thing. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 12 '15 at 18:20
  • @whiterook6 When Victim reveals the betrayal, Victim may have to give some kind of speech explaining the why. I wouldn't make it a huge infodump, but enough to explain it at first glance ("Sorry, Hero; Bad Guy is paying me more than you are." or "Too bad, Hero. I love my brother at lot more than I like you.") and then if necessary, one of the Hero's party can find out more about Victim's backstory later on, if it's relevant. BBC's Sherlock did this in S3 with Mary Morstan, as did Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica with the Final Five Cylons, if you need examples. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 12 '15 at 18:23
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I think you have to approach this from a slightly meta point of view.

We're all familiar with Chekhov's gun - that 'every element in a narrative is to be irreplacable'. So assuming you're following this principle, and doing it well, by the time your readers reach the stage where the victim is being rescued from the dungeon they're quite likely to be thinking 'so, what makes this character irreplacable?'

If the character does nothing that couldn't be cut prior to the betrayal, then the reader is not going to be surprised. If the character does very little that couldn't be cut prior to the betrayal, then the reader is going to be wondering why this dead weight is being dragged around and still not be very surprised. You need to think of a reason why the character is being rescued that is both plausible to the in-universe protagonists, to maintain suspension of disbelief, but is also plausible to the reader based on the literary conventions of whatever genre you're writing in, to lead said reader down a blind alley. To that end I'd suggest looking few a few books from authors you want to emulate and seeing how they introduce supporting characters, and what kind of roles they have them fill. Then take this and subvert it - the character fills this role, the reader thinks they know what's going on, and then pow, betrayal!

As an aside, if you do this really well, then I can imagine it may end up working against you. A truely surprising betrayal will by definition mess with readers' expectations. And if everything else so far has been lampshaded, that can be jarring. Depending on how the rest of the story is playing out and what kind of conventions you're following there can be nothing more satifying than introducing a character who is trusted by the protagonists, but the reader can tell is shady. The tension then builds from how and when the betrayal happens - the reader get a 'I knew it!' payoff, and you can still surprise them by revealing the betrayer's motives are not quite what they expected.

  • Okay. So I have to make the victim useful for some reason--almost like making them a macguffin?--so that readers expect them to be destined for some other part of the story. Is that right? – whiterook6 Sep 13 '15 at 23:57

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