Category Archives: Cinematic Storytelling

Four Reasons Not To Subvert Expectations

There’s a concept that is becoming more and more commonplace in entertainment, in a world where a trailer can’t drop, an episode can’t air, and a sequel can’t be announced without thousands of enthralled fans dissecting every iota of material they’ve been offered, postulating every potential twist and turn in the upcoming narrative, and publishing their findings online for the rest of the world to share in their excitement. That concept is that subverting expectations is the key to great writing.

Writers, directors, and producers believe that the only solution for developing quality entertainment is to write a conclusion that no one in their respective fandoms has ever predicted. They think that if it’s a surprise to the audience, that will automatically make it amazing. That reasoning, of course, is not only fundamentally flawed, but it brings into painful focus the lack of merit that said individuals have as writers, at the very least in regard to the works in which they make this creative choice.

The following is a list of four reasons why subverting expectations is not the be-all, end-all of quality storytelling. Before we get into it, though, I want to make it clear that this is a topic that I am quite passionate about. It boils my blood when directors and writers justify the poor choices they make in their stories with such expressions as, “People would have been mad no matter what we did,” or “They’re only upset because it wasn’t the answer they wanted.”

I do not, however, intend this article to ruffle anyone’s feathers, nor to insult those who enjoyed some of the recent examples of subverting expectations that we’ve seen on both the big screen and the small screen. I believe that storytelling is an art, and for the most part, I believe that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way. These four reasons are simply my explanation for why I think subverting expectations for the sake of subverting expectations is the wrong way.

1. The biggest surprise is rarely the greatest choice for storytelling.

If your story is about a neck-and-neck political race, the most surprising result, for the sake of argument, could be that a big flying saucer comes out of the sky and abducts the protagonist’s opponent, allowing him to win the race by default. As I said, that would be the most surprising result, but it would in no way, shape, or form transform the story into an amazing work of art.

On the other hand, if the main character discovers that his opponent is a spy working to take down the government from the inside, and there were hints that this was the case all along, then you have something that you can just about call a good story, and that is the case whether your audience predicted it or not.

In the same way, having your main heroine go mad and be killed after years of character development and foreshadowing that depicted her as level-headed and sensible might be the most surprising choice available to the writer of a TV show, but it doesn’t mean that it’s high-quality story-telling.

2. You insult the intelligence of your audience.

Whether the writers like it or not, many popular movies and television shows have fanbases composed of highly intelligent, highly skilled individuals. Said geniuses can easily predict the ending of their series of choice, whether based on a gut feeling, the process of elimination, or the very obvious breadcrumbs that were laid out for them to follow in the first place.

If a writer chooses to do the complete opposite of what every one of his IP’s fans has guessed, just for the sake of surprise, it’s nothing less than an insult to the intelligence of those fans. It’s as if the writer is saying, “Oh, so you figured out what I had planned all along? Well, I’m just going to change it. I bet you didn’t see that coming! Not so smart now, are you?”

If everyone and their mother is guessing who the heroine’s parents are, and the writer decides to say that they were nobody, in spite of all the foreshadowing and insinuation to the contrary, just for the sake of choosing an option that no one among the fanbase has predicted, then the writer is essentially saying that the combined intelligence of all the members of his audience is too paltry to be able to accurately predict the ending to his movie, and he’s going to make sure of that if it’s the last thing he does.

3. A surprise resolution is only satisfying if you’re given the tools to see it coming.

There’s a detail in story-telling that transforms your tales from mindless entertainment to layered and nuanced works of art. That detail, which I’ve mentioned already, is called foreshadowing.

A high-quality, satisfying ending is one that you can analyze after the fact and realize it was hinted at all along. Whether you connected the dots or not, once the big reveal is over, you ought to be able to say, “I should have seen that coming.”

And believe me, if you’ve done your job well, if you’ve done adequate foreshadowing, there will be people who see your ending coming. That’s not the sign of a bad story, but an indication of good, high-quality writing.

4. Your audience should be rewarded, not condemned.

Movies, television, books, video games, etc., are all, when it comes down to it, produced for our entertainment. The viewers are supposed to be able to enjoy them, and that requires providing them with the best experience possible.

While some may argue that it limits creative freedom, shouldn’t most works of entertainment strive to make the audience, the ones who make their very existence possible, pleased with their endings?

If they have stuck with you as the creator through thick and thin, if they’ve watched and shared and posted about and gone to conventions and gotten autographs and all-around geeked out over the subject that you are writing, why would you choose to self-destruct your own story, rather than take it in a direction that someone, somewhere, has predicted at some point?

Are Prologues Really That Bad?

There is a sort of stigma in the writing community, especially in certain circles, when it comes to prologues. We can probably postulate that the premise of this pre-plot problem is, put simply, that prologues are a bait-and-switch.

Most writers agree that a novel must begin with a “hook,” something that hooks the reader’s attention and makes them want to continue turning page after page. The issue comes when the beginning of your novel is, quite simply, not that interesting.

To solve such an issue, many writers begin their novels with a prologue, something fast-paced and exciting, to serve as the hook of the novel. However, many readers believe that this is a bit of a cheat. They think that you’re using characters and settings and time periods that may potentially never appear again to convince your reader to keep turning pages past your boring first chapter.

So the question is, are prologues truly as malevolent as some writers feel they are? Are they the kiss of death for your story?

The Power of Prologues

As with any other advice, there are nuggets of wisdom found in the suggestion to avoid prologues. You do, in fact, run the risk of disappointing your readers.

What if the characters that you are following are more interesting than your main characters? In that case, your reader will be disappointed when the switch is made. What if the characters that you are following are less interesting than your main characters? In that case, your reader will probably be rather disappointed in the prologue anyway.

The same can be said for plot and setting. And thus, you can see the conundrum we as writers have in this regard. But I don’t think we should shy away from including prologues. Prologues can serve one of two purposes, and I believe they must if we are to include them in the opening of our stories.

Setting The Tone

Picture yourself in a large theater. There’s a soda in your left hand, a bag of popcorn in your right, and above you the lights are rapidly dimming. The musical score of the film you’re there to watch reaches a crescendo. The camera pans down. There’s a planet. We zoom in. The main character is with his uncle walking around a pawn shop, looking through their collection of droids.

He reminds his uncle that the droid they select needs to speak Bocce. His uncle chooses the appropriate models and tells his nephew to clean them up. He whines that he would rather go to the store to buy power converters.

Is this an interesting scene? No, not in the slightest. Yet it’s still necessary for establishing Tatooine as a setting, and Luke as a character who is going to develop in a clear arc throughout the rest of the story.

So how do you hook your viewers (readers) if the essential establishing scenes are so bland and ordinary, as they often are?

You include a prologue that sets the tone for the rest of the story. Instead of going straight to the planet, open with a tiny spaceship being pummeled by an immense Star Destroyer. Have a shootout, followed by a looming, dark, evil knight walking through the destruction.

Does this scene provide us with our main character? No. Does this scene provide us with our setting? No. Would the story still have been comprehensible without this prologue?

I’d argue that it would. Our knowledge of events would be stripped down, becoming equal to that of both Luke and Han, and thus, we would still learn everything as they learn it.

So what is the purpose of this opening prologue? Simply put, it’s to set the tone. It helps us to see that this is going to be an epic space adventure, that it’s going to be a story of good versus evil, of the weak opposing the strong, and that there’re going to be a lot of exciting action scenes to boot.

If Star Wars IV: A New Hope did not take place in space, if it did not feature good versus evil, if there wasn’t a single dogfight or laser-gun fight in the film, then it would have been that dreaded bait-and-switch of which we referred to earlier.

Simply put, though, there are few, if not none at all, who would have a problem with this prologue the way it was presented in the movie. It hooked us with the promise of what we could expect in that film, and then it made good on that promise.

Providing Backstory

You go back to that same theater next week. Last week’s film got you pumped up. You’re looking forward to this next epic movie. The lights dim yet again, and the logo crosses the screen, accompanied by the soft ringing of the string section of the orchestra.

Then strange, short characters appear on the screen, drinking ale and lallygagging around. They’re shushed, and an equally short, old man walks up onto the podium in front of them and gives a little speech about turning one hundred and eleven years old.

Is this an interesting scene? It has the potential to be, but it’s not inherently so on its own.

After all, we don’t know who these characters are. We don’t know why they are the focus of this story, and we have no idea what the main conflict of the plot will be. So how do you make sure that the viewers (readers) know what’s going on, know what’s at stake, and are ready to be fully immersed in this second world?

You include a prologue that establishes the concept of this world, the struggles that the characters may be confronted with, and even background information about the characters themselves.

This is nowhere as necessary as it is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Of course, prologues that are nothing but pure exposition dumps can be weak and undesirable in themselves. At times, writers may choose to circumvent this issue by creating a main character who serves the function of the curious audience. However, that has the potential to be just as clunky. Not every story can have a character who is so purely ignorant of the goings-on of their world without the occasional narrative hiccup.

But a prologue done well can serve to give us the backstory and information that we need to be able to comprehend what is going on in the story, so that we can read the book unhindered by a lack of knowledge.

Once again, if the story of The Lord of the Rings did not revolve around elves, dwarves, and humans opposing a dark personification of evil, if the main characters weren’t hobbits, and if their characteristics were not essential to the advancement of the plot, then its opening prologues would have been a bait-and-switch.

But how many people did not enjoy the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring? How many people thought it was false advertising? Conversely, how many people would have had no idea what was going on if they were not offered this backstory to Middle-Earth, its various races, its oppressive villain, and the hobbits themselves?

There are plenty of ways to write poorly executed prologues. However, rather than vilifying prologues outright, I believe that our focus should be on identifying when they may be necessary and what the elements of a great prologue are. That way we’ll know when a prologue would be beneficial to our story, and we’ll be able to add skillfully add it to our novel.

No, prologues aren’t the kiss of death. Rather, like every other aspect of writing, they require training and finesse. So go write yourself a prologue. Find out how it affects the opening of your story. And don’t be afraid to go against the grain.