A more and more common creative choice for storytellers in our modern age is the practice of subverting expectations. What that means is that the audience goes into your story expecting one thing, and what you give them is something different.
The problem with this habit is that it is quickly overshadowing the quality choices that would make for better storytelling and more fulfilling arcs. In Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, for example, we are introduced to Rey, and one pivotal question is raised. Who are her parents? In the sequel, Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has gone on record as saying that he wanted to provide the most shocking answer possible, one that no one would have seen coming. Her parents were nobody.
The problem isn’t that her parents have to be major players in this galactic saga. The problem is that the first movie as good as told us that the identity of her parents is important and that we should postulate on who they might be.
In like manner, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones shattered expectations by making it so that any character, whether top-billed or not, could die at any time. This was shocking and effective at first, yet now has become just as worthy of the title of trope as the original habit of having the main characters survive everything.
I’ve already talked at length in a previous article about the negatives of subverting expectations (Issue #005), so I’m not going to continue expressing my frustrations with this habit that so many writers have picked up. However, it’s surprisingly not all bad when it comes to the act of subverting expectations. Every so often there is a piece of storytelling that not only does a passable job at it but succeeds with flying colors.
How is it that these writers can pull this off when so many others have failed?
The key to subverting expectations successfully is that the unexpected events you include must be of greater entertainment value than what they expect.
Happy Death Day is one example of a movie that subverts expectations and turns out all the better for it. In it, Tree Gelbman is forced to repeat the same day over and over, a concept that was made popular by Groundhog Day, and has since appeared in a surprisingly large number of quality films, such as Edge of Tomorrow and Before I Fall.
The expectation that has developed from these multiple forays into the concept of a repeating day is that the main character, the one stuck in the time loop, must live a perfect day before he’s able to escape from it.
Happy Death Day leans into these expectations, having her struggle over and over to live a perfect day so that she can gain her freedom. She finally achieves her goal, wakes up the next morning, and discovers that she remains stuck.
This method of subverting expectations builds off of tired, over-played genre tropes. Such subversions of expectations are great for comedy, having been used to perfection in such films as RED, Cabin in the Woods, and the classic Airplane!
There are a couple of things to remember about these subversions of expectations.
First, they must play off of expectations that come from overuse. In other words, the events that are expected by the audience should not be the most enjoyable series of events for them to watch. When the audience has seen it all before, repeatedly, and the idea of their expectations bores them, maybe even making them roll their eyes as the story progresses, then giving them something unexpected, something greater, automatically elevates your story. The entertainment value of your story shoots through the roof, and those in the audience walk away feeling thoroughly entertained, willing to enjoy the story again and again.
On the other hand, if your audience is looking forward to their expectations, if they feel like the promised story is going to be fun and enjoyable, epic and amazing, then subverting those expectations will do nothing but turn your audience against you. Rather than adding to the viewers’ (or readers’) experiences, you are taking away the potential for their enjoyment, and don’t think the audience won’t call you out on it.
Think of the moment at the end of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens when Rey holds the lightsaber out for Luke to take. This lightsaber is important. It’s significant to the plot. After finishing the movie, we were forced to wait two whole years just to find out why it matters so much. That’s the foregone conclusion. That’s what the film promised us. There’s something to find out. It’s something epic. When you find out what it is, you’re going to be too giddy to continue watching.
Take note: this is not the time to subvert expectations.
When Luke finally takes the lightsaber in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, looks at it forlornly, then throws it over his shoulder and walks away, it is certainly a subversion of expectations. However, it does not add to the entertainment value of the film. Millions of Star Wars fans grew up on the epic story of Luke Skywalker, who transformed from a simple farm boy to a bad-ass wizard. We all wanted to see him become amazing, more amazing than Yoda, more amazing than Obi-Wan.
Taking that away from us by turning his character into the butt of a few meaningless jokes was not just a bad subversion of expectations. Rather, it was a robbery from the audience. It took a potentially epic and entertaining moment from the viewers and replaced it with a sight gag.
Remember, your audience is offering you a little bit of their valuable time. In return, they want to, above all else, be entertained. So, make sure that you give them the moments that they’re hoping for, and don’t detract from their experience just so that you can be unexpected. As long as you do that, then the times that you do choose to subvert expectations will be fresh and enjoyable.