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Imagine a fantasy story in which there once was a very powerful evil divine being, but it was defeated long before the beginning of the story. For the story it is very important that it was defeated, and things would be really bad if it was still alive somewhere, biding its time, waiting for revenge.

How can I convince my readers that that's really, really not going to happen?

My problem is that every idea I come up with sounds like a diversion - as if I was deliberately leading the readers astray in order to surprise them with a "hey guess what, he was still alive after all!" It's just so ingrained in the idea of dead evil gods that they're not really dead!

I have this feeling often if I attempt to write something that does not use a clichéd plot. I know the clichés so well that I expect them all the time, and cannot avoid them without sounding as if I'm doing the opposite - building them up.

So this is not just about the example, although that example is relevant to me. What are the tools I can use to convince at least most of my readers of something that I tell them?

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    I don't mean to be mean, but you may need to convince yourself, first of all. I understand what you're talking about: most films I see are boring or annoying because I recognise the clichés. If or when those clichés are subverted, I often feel like the subversion itself was simply a variation of the original cliché, thus remaining a cliché to the very end. It kills any enjoyment I might have in most films... and a lot of books, too. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jun 21 at 18:58
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    Is there divine magic in your world? Maybe the priests of other gods can still do magic, but priests of the dead one can't-- not even a little bit-- so his worship dwindled fast. This is pretty much the approach taken in the Pathfinder RPG, where the definitely-dead god Aroden can no longer grant spells, and everyone (both NPC's and players) pretty much take it for granted that he's gone for good. – PlutoThePlanet Jun 21 at 18:59
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    @PoorYorick Just have the characters ignore it. If no one treats it as a serious concern, neither will the reader. – eyeballfrog Jun 21 at 22:07
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    FRAME CHALLENGE-Why is this important? If it is not possible, and you want your readers to believe that, what is its purpose in the story? If it is not to raise dramatic tension, why have it? – Xavon_Wrentaile Jun 23 at 3:33
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    @Rand: "Ignore it" is not the same as "dismiss it by openly and repeatedly disparaging it." The more you reference this sort of thing, the more the reader expects it to matter. If it once appears on page 200 of an 800 page book, and is never mentioned again, the reader will happily ignore it along with the characters. Some readers may still expect the cliche, but then they will be pleasantly surprised when it is not there. – Kevin Jun 23 at 6:15

12 Answers 12

44

Readers establish a sense of the story they are reading in the opening pages. That's where you set the contract. If you open with the death of this evil being, the readers will expect that being to be important and assume that the evil being will return. But if you tuck it in after the contract, maybe combine it within local lore of the world along with a few other stories that are not tropey or remarkable in any way, it will be less likely to be seen as anything suspicious.

What do you want to promise your readers that the story is? Rather than what it is not? Put that into the contract.

Answer: Introduce the lack/death of the evil being as a sort of afterthought, after the main contract is established. Downplay it.

Bonus answer: Or, use humor and break the fourth wall, presumably through the narrator.

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    As a side note, if the book does revolve around the dead god (e.g. a cult is trying to bring him back, even though he's dead), you could open with them causing damage in ever more desperate attempts to revive their god. He's dead, it's not going to happen, but they're still causing trouble by, y'know, sacrificing people, so a story could be set there. The entire premise is that they'll only get worse and worse until they're stopped, because they refuse to accept their god is dead. – Nic Hartley Jun 24 at 16:12
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    I would also suggest adding some natural/supernatural rule that is used as the measure of whether or not this evil is dead. Eg. If the evil were alive, [this thing] would be the sign of it's being alive. Since [this thing] isn't present, by the unbendable laws of this fictional universe, the evil is dead. – sabastienfyrre Jun 24 at 20:44
39

This is really a version of the Chekhov's Gun problem. Things aren't in a story unless the writer puts them there, so readers tend to expect significance from important-seeming things that are mentioned. It doesn't really matter if they know the tropes or not.

So the question becomes, why is this detail in here if it's not going to play an active role? Is it just background scene-setting? It's a cool detail, but a potentially distracting one. Can you do without it in the text? It can still be a part of your worldbuilding, but as we all hopefully know by now, not all of your worldbuilding needs to make it onto the page.

I would encourage you to think Iceberg Theory on this one. You aren't "writing this out" or even "not using it," it's still an important part of how you built this world, and an available background detail if you need it. You simply aren't foregrounding it, emphasizing it, or shoehorning it in where it doesn't belong (only to say "Don't pay attention to this!" afer you do so)!

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    It's part of my worldbuilding, and it's an important one because a lot of my world's culture is based on this legend of a glorious triumph over evil. You're right though, it's a bit of a Chekhov's gun that I don't want to fire. For me it's more like the saying "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". I would like to make this clear to my readers, but if I can't do it I will have to consider your suggestion of writing it out. – PoorYorick Jun 21 at 22:15
  • "why is this detail in here if it's not going to play a role" - but it is going to play a role, just not the role most of the readers expect it to. – Mołot Jun 24 at 11:55
  • @PoorYorick I have edited my answer --I think "writing this out" is the wrong way to conceptualize my advice. – Chris Sunami Jun 24 at 13:06
  • @Molot - I amended my answer to clarify. – Chris Sunami Jun 24 at 13:09
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The audience takes its cue from you. If you build this up, they'll assume its for a plot twist reason. If you mention it in passing, they'll assume its background knowledge.

Imagine two different treatments of your very old, very dead, god.

In the first treatment, you're so keen to ensure the audience knows it's dead and how bad it would be if not, that you focus characters and some early narrative on it, to explain this. Naturally, the reader assumes this is for a key reason in the plot, so they're very likely to suspect the god isn't dead or will arise. You effectively create the problem for yourself.

But in the second treatment, its never allowed to be a big deal. It's mentioned a couple of times, but only in passing. A bit like this:

Joe paused, his newly forged steel gleaming, and gave a deep sigh. "Can you imagine how hard this would have been, if the old god hadn't shattered in the Xerxian rebellion? He'd've been in the heart of that forge, laughing at us, and we'd have got no work done for a decade. What a nutter he was"

Mavis nodded. "Y'know, I bumped into one of those pamphleteers on the way in this morning. Idiots never saw the pathologists report. I told him 'Dead god is dead', and he just sat on the kerb and cried. What a jerk." She looked down, expertly appraised the cooling steel, and glanced back to Joe, "Careful, its getting cold", and with a quick exclamation of annoyance, he loaded the steel back into the forge, "Thanks Mave, I owe you".

Here, the in passing description (imagine this as part of a longer scene) and their brutal scornful dismissal, combined with the abrupt switch in narrative/dialogue to get back to their work, all suggests that it may just be casual chatter and "world information", but not necessarily a hint what'll happen in the rest of the book - which is more the effect you're after.

  • This is one of the best answers I have read in a long time. Mine feels mostly redundant now. Good job. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 22 at 13:20
  • Your answer is definitely not redundant! I appreciate both answers very much. – PoorYorick Jun 22 at 16:31
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    The example is a little ham-handed (not unexpected for something off-the cuff). One thing to point out with it, though, is that if you break narrative to introduce a point (e.g. as an arbitrary aside), readers will ascribe importance to it. If you want it to fade into the background, only bring it up if and when it flows naturally from the rest of the story. (c.f. Chekhov's Gun) Never force the mention - only include it to the extent your characters would naturally make the mention. (And do so in service of things like character development, rather than worldbuilding info-dump.) – R.M. Jun 22 at 23:36
  • I'm thinking of good novels, where the world's richness is enhanced by adding details throughout, in the side chat of characters, and small side adventures or events described. It would be that kind of detail. – Stilez Jun 24 at 12:20
  • The answer says "It's mentioned a couple of times, but only in passing". I would change this to "It's mentioned once, and only in passing", to avoid building that expectation by accident. Anything more and people will read too much into it again. – Mooing Duck Jun 24 at 19:07
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It seems you need to come out as an omniscient, reliable narrator and directly tell your audience the fact you want them to have no doubt about. One, often problematic, way to do this is in a prologue. But there are many more ways.

A compelling example that comes to my mind, to highlight the general principle, even though I don't think you could easily make it work for your specific example, is including a map in a story. Imagine you don't have a map, and your characters are talking about some lost, ancient city, which is in the middle of a vast desert, surrounded by literally thousands of miles of wasteland on all sides. Now the readers would have to assess whether this information is in fact accurate, or whether the characters are poorly informed, or exaggerating. Then you add the map, and you clearly show that this is literally true.

You might include a fable in the story itself about how the evil baddie was permanently destroyed, and then add artwork, which you then give titles as an omniscient, reliable narrator, showing the truth of the fable.

Or you could include a few lines at the top of each chapter, with comments about your world, clearly told by you, as an omniscient, reliable narrator. You could perhaps take a couple of chapters to establish the pattern: first you give an interesting factoid about a geographic feature, then some other worldbuilding, then by chapter 3 (presumably still early on in the story) you find an interesting way to point out the big evil baddie is truly, irrevocably done in.

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    Or when first mentioning the character, simply say something like "There are people, even to this day, that incorrectly believe he will return to life someday.". If you present yourself as a reliable narrator, your "incorrectly" (or "mistakenly" or whatever) has to be taken as fact by the readers. – Ray Butterworth Jun 22 at 15:35
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    It doesn't even have to be an omniscient narrator. Even a first-person narrator, presumably speaking from the safety of his old age, could get away with breaking the linear flow of his narration and say something like. "Loking back, I've sometimes wondered what became of those sects. They have become very rare nowadays. By all means the upheavals that followed would have been a prime time for any self-respecting Old Evil to resurface, but never a peep was heard. We had plenty of other trouble, though." – Henning Makholm Jun 22 at 21:30
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    "And in time, after ages innumerable, it would rise again. But this is a story for others to tell." – Eth Jun 24 at 9:02
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I would not exactly try to convince them, just make sure they have some doubt.

I would do that by having (or inventing) a conflict: One character that believes the opposite of another character. Have one of them just "believe" the Evil One is still alive, kind of like a religious belief, while the other cites all the reasons why the Evil One is truly dead.

By the end of the story, neither has given up their position, but the Evil One has not arisen, as the "belief" guy insisted. If you prefer, you can reverse these roles; i.e. one person "believes" the Evil One is dead, and another cites all the reasons why the Evil One is not dead.

The conflict is just between "belief" and "reason", just pick one side to be right and one to be wrong, as you prefer.

Let readers do the same; they will either be vindicated, or if they bet on the cliché surprised, which is a good thing.

Clarification due to comment.

I certainly did not intend to imply that these philosophies should be delivered in sermons or lectures. They are boring. I think of it as a friendly argument between characters stuck with each other; and when I say *"cites all the reasons",* I certainly do not mean all at once, or even all in the same scene or chapter.

Lectures are an unimaginative way to reveal character philosophies. As always, show don't tell: A philosophy should have some impact on the character's actions or decisions. And because of that, should be revealed in a more piecemeal fashion, in bits and pieces throughout several chapters.

In this case, since the death of the Evil One is important to the current world structure; a person that believes the Evil One will return must see the current world structure as temporary, something fragile that will soon be swept away, cannot be trusted, and may not even matter that much.

While the person that believes the Evil One is gone for good may see the new world structure as permanent, something that must be supported and improved because the injustices will last forever unless they are addressed. His counterpart would say this improvement is a waste of time, adding details to our sand castle with one eye on the wave rising to destroy it.

But none of these need to be long passages or lectures, they can be jabs and ripostes, friendly argument to pass the time while traveling, or making camp, or at meals, when people are normally talking to pass the time.

  • This may work for some people; certainly not for me. I gave up on Heinlein due to his later works having so many multi-page sermons in “dialogue.” – WGroleau Jun 22 at 3:26
  • @WGroleau I modified my answer to address your concern; I don't write sermons or lectures and did not mean to imply one should. Heinlein got lazy, I guess, because that is bad writing. But at some point sufficient fame meant he could write crap and people would still buy it, and apparently he indulged himself in political commentary instead of writing fiction. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 22 at 10:44
  • OK, I see and agree. – WGroleau Jun 22 at 12:40
5

This sounds a little like, how do I subvert or avoid some common fantasy tropes? (This question, I asked, deals with subverting a trope).

The reason I do not think this is a duplicate question is unless I am mistaken, you are asking about establishing expectations within the reader that run counter to the classic tropes.

Reader expectations

Reader expectations can be difficult to anticipate and even harder to second guess. You find yourself chasing your own tail and getting nowhere if you focus too much on them.

When a reader knows nothing about you (this is their first book) they have no reason to trust you as an author. Nevertheless, be it through a recommendation or general curiosity, they have picked up your book and are reading. Anyone already reading your book has already invested some considerable trust. The trick then is to simply not blow it.

The only way to build any more trust than that is to make some early promises and then fulfil them in a timely manner.

Voice concerns through character

Generally, your protagonist acts as a reader surrogate. The reader lives in your world through them. You could create a somewhat genre-savvy character that makes the sort of suggestions that you are worried a reader may suspect. This would at least set them up to go and find that, no, the big bad really is six feet under.

It can sometimes work to have a character voice what you think a reader will think. However, think about that too much and you will end up in the non-stop loop that Vizzini gets caught in during the battle of wits with the man in black. At some point, you just have to stop and say, to heck with it - I'm going to tell a good story.

Play with the concerns

Another altogether different approach would be to play with the reader concerns. Set up situations where the cliche could play out. Readers that are expecting a cliche will then be surprised when something entirely "other" (and perhaps more logical) is what happens.

In this way, your readers will be kept guessing for as long as they are willing to invent red herrings for themselves. Over time, your readers will begin to trust that when you say the bad is dead, he is very much dead. No second chances here.

Just write it

I give this advice a lot but I think it applies here too. Just write the story. If, when you are done, the opening looks like it is not especially convincing - then you can edit (or even rewrite). If you are dead set on telling a cliche-free story, that will shine through your work quite well with no particular extra effort on your part.

5

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. In the first book, our protagonists are working to bring down the empire of the Lord Ruler, an immortal God-King tyrant that has oppressed the world for a thousand years. They end up succeeding. (Hopefully it's not too much of a spoiler to say that in an epic fantasy story, the good guys win.)

Then we get into the rest of the series, which picks up where the first book left off. The immortal God-King is now dead, the empire left without the only ruler anyone alive today has ever known. Now what? Our heroes need to pick up the pieces and figure out some way to deal with the ensuing power vacuum before some other tyrant ends up taking over and making everything worse. Oh, and as if that's not enough, it turns out the Lord Ruler had some hand in preserving the integrity of the world, and with him gone, The End is now coming. Oops.

In the middle of the third book, as our protagonists are in way over their heads desperately trying to deal with all of this, they run into someone who controls a vital MacGuffin that could help them. He's a former priest of the Lord Ruler's religion, though, and he refuses to help, as he devoutly believes that the Lord Ruler is not dead; he's just off hiding somewhere, testing their faith, and will return to save them in the appropriate moment. And when the reader sees this, it's cause for massive facepalms, as this guy is obviously deluded.

If you want to make it clear to the reader that the Dark Evil God is truly dead and not coming back, that could be a good example to emulate. Have people who 1) worship him, 2) believe that he's not truly dead, that he is coming back and and will reward them for their faithfulness, 3) are clearly nuts and 4) allow their delusions to distract them from things that are actually important and urgent in the reality they're living in, to the detriment of themselves and those around them.

  • This is a good suggestion. If there are clearly crazy characters that are easily dismissed that believe this sort of thing, it makes it seem more believable to the reader that such conspiracy theories are not true. It's much easier to convince the reader, "These guys are nuts, and they believe X; what does that say about X?" than to tell them "trust me, the author (or a character), you shouldn't believe X because it's not true". – V2Blast Jun 23 at 1:58
3

Don't tell. Show them

It does not matter how many times you tell the reader that something is or that it is not. Telling is so detached from the internal image that readers build about the story that it will not affect the picture. On the other hand you can add elements to the picture to seal a fact for good.

In your example you may wish to establish as a piece of lore that a certain evil being is gone, never to return. In order to do so, you could embed this information in your worldbuilding. Some suggestions:

  • Show the tombs and fallen temples of all the fools who tried to revive it, and failed.
  • Show it as a part of the world idiomatic language "...parted like EVIL BEING", indicating something that is never going to happen again.
  • Show that the law does not worry about deeds such as trying to revive the evil being, or even worshipping it. The punishment is light, if there is any at all: if it is dead there is nothing left to worry about.

Alternatively, you could confirm it in the plot. For instance:

  • (as LordMatt suggested) use it as a red herring, where it becomes evident that someone is relying on the evil being to come back in order to complete their goal, and, surprise!, it is truly irrevocably dead.
  • show the lack of worry and of conflict of MC when faced with the possibility that the evil being may return. This should wash off the possible tension arising from such a thought.
3

Build on the bones

Integrate the body of the evil god into the setting of the story. Its ribs support the pillars of the great church. The crystals formed of its magic are scattered through the world powering steam engines.

If a great monster is stabbed through the chest and then falls into the ocean, there is no way to know if it is really dead. If it falls on land, and you make a house out of its skull, then you can be pretty sure that it won't be coming back.

I expect that your evil god is less concrete than say... Godzilla. But the same principles apply. If the physical and magical manifestations of the god's presence have been disassembled, scattered throughout the world, and integrating into existing structures, it greatly reduces the feeling that the god might be in hiding, or capable of regenerating itself.

This fires the Chekov's Gun
Chekov's gun is the principle that readers understand that every detail is important in a story, and they expect the information you give them to affect the story. If you tell them that there was an evil god in the world, then they will try and figure out how that god is relevant, and some will draw the conclusion that it's relevant because it is coming back.

But integrating it into the setting creates a new way for the god to be relevant. If we can't cross this swamp because it's full of creatures warped by the god bleeding into it, or all our cities are interconnected by portals because we built them out of the god's bones, then we've justified the god's presence in the story, and readers will feel less of a need to search for further justification.

Tell a different story

One of the best examples of this sort of thing is The Lies of Locke Lamora. Locke lives in a world that was inhabited thousands of years ago by the Eldren, a mysterious race of beings. Nobody knows anything about them, except that they built magnificent structures out of Elderglass, an indestructible glass-like material with a few odd properties. The Eldren themselves are long gone, leaving only their Elderglass behind.

Several of the scenes in the book take place in or near Elderglass structures, and their presence contributes significantly to the tone of the worldbuilding, but never in the story is there a feeling that the Eldren themselves are going to be relevant.

This is at least partially because it's not that sort of story. The Lies of Locke Lamora has a very narrow focus. It's not about controlling nations, or battling armies, or saving the world. It's about a thieving crew and their fight to stop a single man who interfered with their life. The scope is too small to encompass a return of the Eldren.

If you promise your readers a small-scale, personal story, then your readers will not expect you to involve vast cosmic forces in the resolution of your plot.

2

What you ask is a hard thing to do, because readers have been lied to a lot, precisely about that sort of thing. Enough that the surprise ending isn't really a surprise anymore. Which in turn means others who intend to break the contract have asked exactly the same question, with the intent of reviving the surprise.

Except they then do break the promise they make. This process means most audiences will treat whatever method you think up to convince them you'll keep your promise with, at the very least, suspicion.

As far as I can tell, anything short of a 4th wall break, will just draw more attention to the elephant in the room.

I know this doesn't answer your question, but have you considered:

  • Living with your audience expecting the trope, and letting it be a pleasant surprise that you didn't break your promise.

  • Removing or refactoring that element of the story.

However, if you really must: there is something you might find helpful to consider. That is that one of the implicit promises to the audience that is usually kept is that the story be a good one i.e. it makes sense and is entertaining etc. (This is why the 4th wall break/narration works. If you openly state something as the author and later go back on it: audiences are critical. As authors tend to want to avoid that, hence these promises are usually kept.)

You could use this to your advantage without a 4th wall break, by setting up some other way in which breaking your promise would also obviously break your story. How you would do this is a little particular to any given story. However some examples of the sort of thing I have in mind.

  • Make it so nothing meaningful could have changed for a long time since the event. This makes it hard believe a plausible series of events that lead to you promise being broken are on their way. As if they are the audience has been lied to by omission.

  • Make it so the story wouldn't be interesting (universe blinks out of existence), or is in some other way ruined like being unfit for the target audience (everybody dies in a children's book), if the promise were to be broken.

1

Example. In the first four paragraphs of A Christmas Carol, faced with a similar problem of stretched narrative credibility, Dickens begins by reinforcing the fact of Marley's death, absent-mindedly rambles on about similes, then reminds us, lays more exposition, reminds us again, and shows how such doubts would ruin Hamlet:

A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

STAVE ONE.

MARLEY'S GHOST.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son's weak mind.

After which it's all story...

  • But these are examples of truly dead people coming back from their graves. That is exactly the opposite of what I'm doing. :D But I understand what you mean, the way the narrator is explaining things is similar to what I could do. Interesting. However, I think it's perfectly superfluous in the case of A Christmas Carol, since ghost stories are not something unheard-of. I guess the point here is more to set the tone than to actually convince the reader of Marley's death. – PoorYorick Jun 26 at 8:17
  • @PoorYorick, A guess: Dickens was published and read serially, perhaps the "Faking the Dead" or the "Scooby-Doo" Hoax tropes might have seen heavy rotation in contemporary periodicals. – agc Jun 26 at 9:03
1

Fire Chekov's Gun, but at a different target.

Make this an important detail of your world-building by revealing it to be important, that the god IS dead.

You can do this one of two ways: You can either subvert the trope you're concerned about by setting the story up for this twist, or, you can nullify the trope you're concerned about and avoid making this be a twist by showing early and often how/why it's important that the god is dead.

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