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Dumping an entire world for dramatic effect?
About 1/3 of the way through my story the main antagonist "wins" and is able to completely remake the world of the story into his notion of an ideal world.
The "new" world shares some elements with the previous incarnation but all are altered to some extent. Even character's recollections of previous events is limited and/or significantly altered. I wanted to do this to give the villain a way to show how he is right and to force the characters into a situation that while is impossible, would forcibly shed a light on their other side.
Is there any way to do this without alienating the reader, who may well have invested significant time in the previous part of the story and feel cheated as a result?
The question you should be asking is not how big a change this is in the world, but how big a setback it this for the protagonist and how does it impact his/her moral arc. The basic structure of story is of an escalating series of challenges leading to a revelatory moral climax in which the character makes some life-altering decision and then lives out that decision.
So the question would be, how do you fit such a change into the moral arc of the protagonist? Since it occurs only 1/3 into the story, how are you going to top it to present a yet more difficult challenge to the protagonist? But that means a challenge that is more morally difficult, not one that is more physically difficult.
If you can answer those questions satisfactorily, then go for it. It really does not matter how big the challenge is physically. It matters how great it is morally. A far more subtle change could present a far greater moral challenge. As long as the moral shape of the story is maintained, you should not have a problem. But if the moral shape of the story is distorted, then the story is not going to work.
To be honest, I think if you were to do this, you would not have one story, but two. One, the story of the world up until the villain wins, and Two, the story after the world changing event. So, basically, I would choose one and write that, and only that. Keep the other for a prequel/sequel. I honestly don't think you could write both arcs in one story without seriously alienating the reader (obviously not everyone, but I do think it would be the majority). I certainly wouldn't be interested in continuing to read something I'd invested my time in only to find out poof the entire world and characters you came to love are no more! Let's start from square one.
Yeah, no thank you. Readers will feel cheated at the very least, and there's a big chance that they'll not only put your book down out of frustration, but also have lost enough trust in you to not be able to trust any of your other books.
But you're not asking whether people would want to read that kind of story, so much as you want to know how much you can get away with 'ruining' the world anyway, right? Personally, I would cut the 'normal world', the first 1/3 of the story, completely. Then, instead of showing Normal World -> World Changing Event happens -> Here's a Brand new World!, I would start with the New World, and hint throughout the story that this isn't what the world is meant to be before finally revealing it to the reader, and maybe the characters, too. That, if done well, could make for an interesting psychological piece, with characters and situations that just don't quite seem to fit (maybe some characters were more resistant to the Change than others and have a sense kind of like deja vu where 'This town doesn't feel right... Was it always so dark?' or 'Did this shop keeper always have such a nasty personality? What's happened to the caramel buns they used to sell!') but no one can figure out why, until it's revealed that this is a world the villain recreated to mirror his own perfect world. This way, you can still have the shock of the world and characters the reader invests themselves in having been dramatically altered (in the past), but it's delivered in a different way.
While this may not be the kind of suggestion you would like, I, personally, think that it is all but impossible to simply write one story for 1/3 of a book before tearing it away from the reader and throwing one they very possibly don't give a fig about at their feet, and expecting them to be happy with the shock factor. You are much more likely to entertain, but still surprise and excite, the reader by weaving the idea of a Changed World into the story in a more subtle and tactful way.
I would say that two things are essential to make your proposed reality-shift such that the reader doesn't feel cheated, and like they wasted their time. And I truly believe both are essential, not either or:
- Make sure that the potential for this outcome is expected, to some degree, before it happens. It shouldn't be out of the blue. That doesn't mean you have to telegraph it blatantly, such that it becomes predictable. Only that the reader should understand that the very reality which they are reading is at stake, and may not be preserved.
- Don't let any of the events in the first 1/3 of the book be meaningless or irrelevant to the story. It might be a little strong to claim that none of them should be irrelevant, but this is just a good general rule of storytelling. Note, this doesn't mean that all the events that ever took place during the first 1/3 of the book must be relevant, only that the events that took place on page must be relevant. Any irrelevant events must be alluded to off-page. Depending on the rules of your world, relevance of events doesn't necessarily have to hinge on them having left any trace in history or people's memories. It just has to leave some trace, whether it's by natural means or not. If you're contriving your story in such a way that all possible traces that an event can leave vanishes (from the state of the world, the state of people's memories, other parallel worlds, etc), then you're rigging it so that those events couldn't possibly have been relevant.
There may be no natural means by which you can follow point #2 and still go the route you want to go. But that doesn't mean there's no conceivable means by which this can be accomplished. You must simply have different rules in your world, which means you have a world-building task ahead of you. If you truly can't find a way to accomplish this, then you may want to consider starting your story after the reality-shifting event. (Although, if this is truly the case, I'd find it hard to argue that anything even happened before the event, or that before the event is even a coherent concept. If a tree falls, etc.)
The answer is: Yes , you can do it, and you can even do it well if you try hard and if you follow some basic "rules". Details below:
So, your story seems to need the kind of plot where the main character is reactive - that is, the plot is driven by the motivations of the antagonist, with the protagonist trying to foil his plan, instead of it being driven by something the protagonist wants to achieve and the villain is in his way. This is very important to remember from the first page, as it will set the tone of your story.
You need to make absolutely clear to the reader, early on, that the stakes include a reality shift. This is not something you can shoot at them out of the blue. To do this effectively you will probably have to devote a decent portion of the first third of your story to explore the villain's perspective - what they want to accomplish, why, how etc. Needless to say, it also needs to be shown that they have strong chances of succeeding. A one-in-a-million shot that succeeds works if it's made by the hero - if it's made by the villain, it just feels lame. And you need to give enough hints that this will happen quickly - you can't mislead the readers into thinking this is your endgame , you need to convince them that the conflict to decide the outcome of the reality-shifting plan is only the first major climax in your book and it is coming soon. How you accomplish this is up to you.
Because the antagonist will succeed, you will have to try and make them rather sympathetic to the reader , so that they feel that even if they accomplish their objective, maybe not everything is bad. An entirely unsympathetic villain cannot work well with this.
Now you approach the first climax point at the 1/3 mark. Hopefully you've built up reasonable tension, a plausible explanation for the mechanics of the reality shift, and shown that your villain is capable of and determined to go through with it, while your hero is trying to stop him. How the conflict is managed will depend on your story entirely, whether it will be a physical battle with swords, a duel of magic, a chess game for control of a supercomputer, whatever. However it needs to be desperate for both sides, it needs to push both to the limits , if the villain accomplishes his goal too easily here, then the entire story falls apart. The readers need to be convinced that the reality shift can and will probably work, but at the same time they need to believe that it can be prevented until the very last second. In a way, for this part, your villain becomes your hero - much like, during the climax of a conventional (good) book, the reader pretty much knows the hero will win, but is on the edge of his seat to find out how, here you need to do the same for your villain, so that when the reality shift happens, it feels like a satisfying, deserved victory rather than the villain trolling the hero.
BONUS POINTS : at the end of the struggle, you leave it unclear who won and who lost. Then you jump to the "normal" world post-aftermath, and you spend maybe a chapter of ambiguity dropping hints that something is not right, but leaving it to the reader to try and figure out if the reality shift happened or not. However this needs to be resolved fairly quickly, I'd say one chapter at most, before you confirm.
All of the above was the easy part. Now we actually get to the part that requires effort.
So the reality shift happens. The next step is to project your endgame to the reader. Your protagonist is in a new world that has been altered to the villain's image. Now I'm gonna pause and say that even though the details of the reality shift are up to you, you should follow some general guidelines:
1) The villain should not have had "absolute" control over what was changed. Otherwise it would be too easy for him to just ensure everything goes his way for the rest of the story. Whether you accomplish this due to limitations in the reality shift method, or some mental weakness of the villain, or any one of other numerous ways, is up to you. At any rate, you need to establish that either the shift was, from the beginning, a "general guidelines" sort of shift where the villain gave some directions but the details were left to chance/the internal workings of your world, or alternatively that the shift was only partially successful, preferably due to the hero's efforts. This is the preferred way in my opinion: the villain's plot was accomplished, but the hero's efforts opened a vulnerability that will be exploited later.
2) The "new world" is still recognizable as a shifted version of the old one. You seem to already be aware of this by what you wrote in the question, but it is very important to stress out. The changes must be small and subtle, and they must be MEANINGFUL. If you cannot put forward a reason for something to change, do not have it change (this doesn't mean you have to explain to the reader every little change, but you should be able to justify it to yourself). On top of that, if there are things that make sense to have been changed, you need to show them change. Otherwise you will come off as lazy. Internal consistency is a must.
3) The "new world" must not be all bad. This ties in with the need to make your villain sympathetic. You should show some positive outcomes from the change. That way readers actually become invested in the debate of which world is better and can find arguments for both sides, perhaps leading to an outcome that does not involve the world getting back to normal - instead maybe a compromise is reached between the old and the new. If you just make a crapshoot world, then the only desirable endgame is a full reset, which just makes for a bad story.
With that out of the way, the endgame. There are obviously dozens of ways to end this, but I will outline three main routes here, which along with the multiple variations should cover a large spectrum of possibilities:
1) The hero realizes the truth, then fights the villain for control of the reality-shifting power, then uses it to put the world back to normal. BORING. DO NOT DO THIS.
2) The hero realizes the truth, however the change is not reversible , whether due to the reality shifting whatever breaking or being a one-time thing or other cause. They try to work from within the new world to improve it, culminating in a battle of ideals with the villain. In the end the hero wins, the villain realizes the errors in his decisions (or dies I guess if you really want to) and they try to improve the new world internally.
3) The hero realizes the truth, then fights the villain for control of the reality-shifting power. However, as he is about to use it to put the world back to normal, he realizes this is not the best idea. Maybe he cannot directly undo the villain's work, and so if he tries to change the world, it would be changed according to his own image, which is just like what the villain did. Maybe what would be lost in the change, or the sacrifice to power the shift, is more than he is willing to pay. Maybe he realizes that the new world may be different from the old one, but that not all is bad, and that this world is also worth preserving. So in the end, he doesn't go through with the reset. What happens from there on is up to you, maybe like in 2) they try to work inside the new world, maybe something else. This is interesting and allows you to explore different facets of your characters, your world, and even play around with the definition of "reality". I personally would go for an option within this bracket.
Determining which ending you will go for at this point (if not earlier) is crucial because you have to build up to it. Each of the above variations will require completely different story writing in the remaining two-thirds of the book (and very likely even the first part, which may lead to rewriting - but that always happens)
So now you are 1/3 in your book, and you have the ending defined. The next step is to sell your endgame to the readers. Do not leave too much ambiguity at this point, pick a line and go with it. If you build towards a reset outcome (1) only to reveal in the end that the thingy is broken and the only option is (2), it's crap. Like in the first part you can make it work, as long as you are honest to your readers.
What comes next? The next part should be the conflict between new and old. The hero needs to gradually work out the fact that reality has shifted, he needs to remember (part of) what has changed, and needs to figure out a plan to undo/mitigate/correct it. Here is where you will need to pull on the stuff that happened in the first third of the story. Almost everything noticeable that happened in the first third (old world) needs to play some part in the second third and help the hero realize the shift and/or help him figure out how to proceed. Again implementation is story-specific and up to you. This is where the other answers fall short: it's not like you are throwing the first third of your book in the trash bin. Rather, you are ensuring that everything the reader read about in the first third is so significant, that it guides the course of events even after the whole world has changed. Of course I'm not gonna get scienc-y here about this because the what how why depends extensively on your setting. A hard-ish sci-fi novel will have completely different rules and mechanics for the reality shift compared to a high fantasy one, or a psychological horror story.
And so we reach the 2/3 mark of the book, which should be another climax. What kind of climax? One option is to build upon the new vs old debate. After realizing the shift, the hero needs to face a deep internal conflict where his very reasons and resolve for fighting the villain are challenged. What if in the new world, he was able to find true love? What if his family which died when he was young in the old world, is alive and well in this one? What if the world is at peace? Does he still want to fight the villain and undo his work? Maybe the villain was right after all?
Now, here is a major catch. Can you answer "yes" here? It may seem like you legitimately can, depending on your endgame. But there is a caveat. If the hero accepts that the villain was right, then that means that the hero's struggle in the first third of the book was misguided, and his efforts are invalidated. And this leads to a bad story which other answers have alluded to. No, you need to convince the reader that despite the arguments in favor the new world, in the end, either:
1) The change was bad and needs to be undone (Endgame 1). If you followed my advice and made the villain sympathetic and his new world better in some aspects than the old one, this is tricky to pull off well. Why? Maybe there is a moral reason why the "old world" was the "right" one and changing it was wrong or had unintended consequences. But that feels rather shitty to the reader. Maybe the villain himself realizes he messed up and wants to undo it but he can't (or won't, if he cannot bring himself to admit his own failure). Either way it's hard but not impossible
2) The change had good and bad aspects, but the hero still wants to undo it (Endgame 2). This is where you can potentially play with the hero trying to undo the change, only to discover a while later that it cannot be done, and instead shift to them trying to work with/improve the new world.
3) The change had good and bad aspects. The way forward is not to change the world, either because the hero can't (Endgame 2) or realizes he shouldn't or doesn't want to (Endgame 3). Alternatively you can have the hero still try to move forward with a reset plan, only later to realize it is the wrong choice (Endgame 3) however that is trickier to pull off because hitting the hero with the "you were wrong" right at the endgame is a common place where writers trip - it can be done well, but it is easy to do wrong, and if you do it it's a great way to turn readers off right at the most critical part of your story. I would not recommend it and instead go with the more straightforward way of having the hero's plan be defined earlier.
Once you are done with this and have resolved your hero's internal struggle, you can move forward with the final confrontation with the villain and your Endgame.
TLDR : Yes, it can be done, it is a story like any other. It needs effort and hard work, just like any other plot. It can be good or bad depending on how you handle it. It's not even a really hard hook, compared to others.
Disclaimer : Above I gave some general guidelines on how to make this kind of story work. They are by no means absolute or all-inclusive, I just outlined a few methods I think most writers should be able to follow fairly successfully.
Yes, Back to the Future 2 literally does this; as does "the good place". As long as you stay on point and it doesn't rock the boat too much, it's fine. But this should probably be the first disaster if you're writing to Hollywood formula, which means 2 more significant events.
What you need, mechanically, is a strong through line that exists on both sides of the change. After memories are wiped in the good place, the characters are still in the same danger and stakes increase, but also the villian starts to change into a hero. Also, the show is exploring an idea. As an idea story, character place and plot are less important.
Check out the mice quotiant for more on idea stories.
It sounds to me that you are writing a tragedy. The protagonist gets what he wants, but everything goes to hell.
If you still want him to be the hero, he has to change, and find some way to correct his mistakes (cooperate with the "Villain?").
Stories are about characters, not worlds. The story world can change without alienating the reader as long as the reader still has an interest in the characters.
You use the world to show that the protagonist's original worldview is thematically wrong.
While there is a risk of alienating the reader, it also depends on how much investment they have in the world change as a plot point.
If it's something that the reader is aware may happen early on, or their journey reaches that point naturally (with much in need of change from the first world) you will probably have the most success with it.
But does that world necessarily need to be gone forever?
As an example, you could show what is great/horrible about each world, and twist the readers perception of them and have the characters try to get back to their original world after realising that the new one isn't all it's made out to be.
Is there any way to do this without alienating the reader, who may well have invested significant time in the previous part of the story and feel cheated as a result?
No. This violates common story expectations too much for readers, and that will not be enjoyable, it will be alienating.
It is too much time to spend on making a single point.
There is a common misunderstanding amongst beginning writers that the typical story structures (3 act, 4 act, Shakespeare's 5 act, the Hero's Journey) are prescriptions for making stories, but they are not: They are descriptions of how tens of thousands of successful stories have been constructed for millennia, they are generalizations of what generally works in story telling, what humans like in stories. The stories they describe, with millions of others, were set down long before Aristotle or anybody else decided to study them and look for commonalities.
Interestingly, after identifying these structures in popular stories, we also find that most stories people don't like are missing something from these structures. Also, we can find psychological features that these structures seem to represent. The audience (readers or viewers) like it when heroes have to struggle, when heroes have flaws they must overcome, when heroes have setbacks, or reach moments of despair that they seemingly may not overcome. They like danger, they like action.
The OP's premise here violates several fundamental rules of story writing. What a story opens with is expected to matter to the rest of the plot. (The OP has everything wiped 1/3 of the way through the story, so very little matters, which is what the OP specifically worries about -- rightly.)
The MC should be introduced early. If everything is wiped, the MC becomes a different person, or perhaps isn't even introduced in the first 1/3.
1/3 of a book is too much for the reader to just throw away, this is a betrayal of their trust in the author. The "dramatic effect" sought could be achieved as a retrospect, or with little setup elsewhere, and probably more effectively: The god-like antagonist can make just a town vanish, and just a handful of people remember it; gaslighting them and making them think they are insane for remembering something in such great detail with zero evidence of it. Or anything like that.
The beginning of a book sets up the MC, and their normal world, and that is what readers expect to happen in the first 10% to 15% of the story; around the 20% to 30% mark, the MC should be forced out of their normal world. (In movies this still happens but it can happen somewhat faster; an MC and their normal world can be conveyed very quickly with actors, visuals and audibles that don't have to be described to the audience). In the first five pages, the MC should be interacting with at least one other person.
Trying to subvert the tropes of the first 20% of the story is not for beginning authors, it is for authors that are already making a living from writing fiction and have a following willing to tolerate such subversions because they trust the writer to deliver like they have done before.
Even then, only about 10% of readers are "lead risk takers" that will buy something nobody else has read, and nobody has critiqued. If a story gets bad reviews from these risk takers, it just doesn't go anywhere.
No author that is not already making a living from their existing books should subvert a trope on a whim, this approach will not work. It will get bad reviews, and those will stick with you throughout your (probably short) career.
Readers have concrete expectations for the beginning of a story. Effectively none of them are reading so the author can introduce them to innovative story structures. They read so somebody else (the author) does most of the innovating imagining for them, of the settings, the rules of the world, the characters and their problems and how they resolve them. They like twists that make sense in retrospect, IMO The Sixth Sense was the most masterful twist ever, and upon re-watching the movie makes perfect sense -- I just missed it, like almost everybody else.
Authors write to assist the reader's imagination, hopefully to immerse them in the story, hopefully to surprise them, but there are still rules. Deus Ex Machina is certainly a surprise, but they make no sense given the story leading up to them.
Sudden personality changes can be a surprise, but they must be supported by the story leading up to this transformation. In retrospect a twist or surprise must make sense, that is the rule.
In addition to failing to meet the other requirements of an opening, this "twist" will not make sense in retrospect, it appears arbitrary. Yes, the reader will feel cheated, and I don't believe there is any writing technique to prevent that outcome.
I think all the answers, pro and con, have merit. I’d like to add that if the change and how it affects the characters is the main point to be explored, I think it could work.