Tag Archives: February 2020

When Subverting Expectations Is A Good Idea

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.

Editing—Things To Look Out For, Part Two

Finishing the first draft of your novel is an enormous accomplishment. If you’ve ever written the final paragraphs of your 100,000-word manuscript, bookending it all with “The End,” then you have the right to be proud. Maybe even allow yourself to feel a little cocky. After all, you’re going to need all the encouragement and energy you can muster to push yourself through the next step.

If you know what this step is already, then you’re more than likely dreading the following word: editing. As awesome as it is to finish the first draft, it’s only half the battle. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s a lot less than half.

As much as people dread it, however, the editing process is an absolute necessity for any first draft. It’s the time when you arduously refine your writing again and again and again until what remains is a sparkling, perfectly cut gem.

The problem is that in our writing culture, we’ve been trained to fully embrace the creative process, to develop stories with twists and explosions and first kisses. Editing, unfortunately, is an entirely different process, and it requires an entirely different way of looking at your work.

So, what should your objective be when editing your novel? There are many different things that you should keep firmly in mind when editing, so many that I’ve divided them into two categories.

The first, which was covered in the previous release of The Writer’s Everything, focused on addressing the small details. Specifically, it discussed the need to tie up or eliminate loose ends and make sure that you’re maintaining a consistent pace that is proper for your genre. In this article, we’re going to be addressing two big-picture goals that you need to address when editing.

Of course, there’s more to editing a novel than these four things. But writing a novel is like drawing a portrait. You start with a quick, lightly penciled outline. Your next step should be, not shading the upper lip and drawing each strand of hair, but rather fleshing out your quick sketch with more details. You have to make sure that your “drawing” is taking the right shape, and once it’s in the form you want it, then you can address the myriad of other objectives, such as fact-checking, grammatical errors, and typos.

Unrealistic Character Motivations

One of the most important things we have to address when editing is character motivations. Characters are the driving force of your novel. Their decisions and actions are the reason you have a plot. Characters are also what connects your readers with your story. We may not have first-hand knowledge of wizardry, but we know what it’s like to try to live up to the expectations of others or fill the shoes that were left behind by our parents. We may not have first-hand experience in space dogfights, but we know what it’s like to aspire to a greater, more meaningful life.

That’s why it’s so important to have solid character motivations. If your characters are unmotivated, then your readers aren’t going to connect with them. They’re not going to care whether he can save his job, his marriage, or the orphanage if he doesn’t have the slightest interest in achieving those goals.

We have to make it clear what our characters want and why they want it. We have to understand what’s most important to them, and once we do, then we’re invested. When Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were killed in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, we already knew that he dreamed of leaving Tatooine behind and becoming ‘a Jedi like his father.’ Because of that, we’re eager to see what he does next in the pursuit of his goals.

On the other hand, when Hester Shaw attempts to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine in Mortal Engines, it’s utterly meaningless to us. We don’t know what her beef with him is, why she wants him dead, or what she will accomplish by killing him. We have no reason to root for her to either succeed or to fail.

Even more egregious are the instances where a character acts without having any real reason whatsoever. In such cases, the reason is transferred from the character’s motivation to the author’s motivation. They did it because the story needed them to do it.

Why did Mr. Freeze tell Batman in Batman Forever that he’d ‘kill him next time’ when he had him in his clutches and could have easily ended him then and there? Because then the story wouldn’t happen.

All authors need to make sure that their characters are properly motivated, and that their motivations make sense. More experienced authors discover ways to weave character motivation into the story so that they are intrinsically linked. As you learn to pay attention to character motivations and adjust them as needed, you’ll find that your novel instantly becomes more compelling and interesting.

Identifying The Theme

The second big-picture objective that we need to address when editing is theme. Now, I know, I know. “Theme” may be a five-letter word, but to many authors, it might as well be one short.

It’s too complex. No, not just that. It’s too complicated. It’s needlessly complicated. You don’t want to have to think about the themes in your novel when you could be focusing on more compelling things, like adding in exciting action sequences and killer plot twists.

Just as with character motivation, however, you’ll find that theme connects our readers to the story. Theme resonates with them, and having a solid theme developed is a sure way to keep them interested.

A word of caution, though, is in order.

Developing your theme is not synonymous with adding a moral to your story, and it certainly is not the same as preaching to your audience. Your theme is the topic that your story focuses on. That doesn’t mean that by addressing theme, your characters have to make it clear what’s right and what’s wrong. In fact, more experienced writers can skillfully weave theme throughout their stories.

While Jean Valjean is a slave to his past crimes in Les Misérables, Inspector Javert is a slave to the law, Fantine is a slave to poverty, and Cosette is a slave to society. Jean Valjean attempts to break away from his past and gain freedom in a new life. Inspector Javert contemplates his responsibility to uphold the law, and in the end, he can’t break free from his moral obligations. Fantine is unable to gain freedom from her impoverished life, yet she wins said freedom for her daughter Cosette. Cosette, meanwhile, feels locked in place by the expectations of society and struggles to break free from her responsibilities and enjoy a relatively carefree life with Marius Pontmercy.

Of course, readers can discover their own themes in the pages of a novel. They can extract their own meaning and significance from your story. Does that mean that we don’t have to worry about theme ourselves?

Not at all.

While you may accidentally stumble upon certain themes while writing your story, the best themes are planned out and developed just as well as the plot and the character motivations are. After all, the more work you put into developing the themes of your work, the more there will be for your readers to discover.

When it comes to editing your novel, don’t feel like you’re obligated to suffer through it. And definitely don’t be afraid of the process. With just a few simple steps, and a little perseverance, you can craft your simple first draft into a fantastic, deeply developed second draft. So get to it and enjoy the journey.

Issue #010: Editing—Things To Look Out For, Part Two

You finally finished the first draft of the novel of your dreams! Unfortunately, writing the book is only half the battle. Next comes…editing. What are the major revisions that you need to make in order for your novel to come out the other side as a shining gem?

Check out “Editing—Things To Look Out For, Part Two” in this issue of The Writer’s Everything! #TWE @QJ_Author

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Crafting Compelling Character Arcs—Captain America

Few characters embody all the ideals that we as a culture hold dear the way Steve Rogers, better known by his crime-fighting alias Captain America, does. Over the course of his eleven appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), he has stood for truth, justice, and freedom, easily snatching the mantle of a pure and innocent do-gooder from the DC Extended Universe’s Superman.

Continue reading Crafting Compelling Character Arcs—Captain America

Editing—Things to Look Out For, Part One

You’ve finally done it. You’ve put in the time, the effort, the blood, sweat, and tears. You’ve come out on the other side victorious, the first draft in your shaky grasp. Creating an entire novel is a substantial undertaking. No doubt by the time you typed “The End” on the last page of your document, you were ready to take a break.

Taking time away from your manuscript, especially after an intense, no holds barred experience like the recent National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), is certainly understandable. In fact, most people consider it to be a necessity. There’s something about spending time away from a project that allows you to be able to see things objectively, and thus make drastic improvements in your first draft.

The idea of editing, however, is a daunting prospect to many writers. For first-timers, it may seem utterly impossible. You know that there is so much to do, but you can’t find a clear indication of where to start.

So, what should you look for when you begin the editing process on your work-in-progress (WIP)?

To edit a novel, you need to be able to look at your writing under a microscope to find everything wrong with it. At the same time, there are going to be problems you won’t notice until you hold it as far away from you as possible and take in the entire story as a whole.

So, let’s break the editing process into two parts. In this issue, we’re going to look at the little things, things you discover when looking under that microscope. Then in the next issue, we’re going to look at the big picture items that need to be edited. Each is so different, yet so equally important.

Loose Ends

The first thing you need to look for when editing a novel is the presence of unresolved issues and plot threads. Of course, not every problem that your characters face has to be satisfactorily solved by the end of your story. However, unresolved plot threads have the potential to leave readers wondering why they were included in the first place.

For example, in Star Trek Into Darkness, Doctor McCoy is depicted chasing Captain Kirk down and forcing him to have a physical. He believes that there’s something wrong with the captain, and the results do little to comfort him. We rightly think, because of the emphasis placed on this plot point, that Kirk’s health will factor into the story. Unfortunately, it is never mentioned again.

Maybe you were setting up for some big subplot twist. Maybe your character raised a question that you never got around to answering. Whatever the case is, you have one of two options.

You can trim the loose ends out of your manuscript. If it doesn’t go anywhere, and it isn’t essential to the plot, then why keep it? Just trim the fat, and your story will be all the better for it.

You can edit the novel to provide a satisfying conclusion to the plot thread in question. Maybe your loose end was a genuine mistake. Maybe you really did have the greatest idea in the world, and there’s no way you’re going to pass that up now. In that case, you can alter the rest of the novel, inserting new scenes and moments that form a trail of breadcrumbs to the answer that your readers were waiting for the whole time.


Another thing you can look at when editing your novel is pacing. The act of pacing your novel is a tricky task that requires a great deal of finesse to do well. Although it’s something I’m giving attention to in my writing, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the topic.

The thing is, though, you can go slow. You can go fast. You can have it keep a frantic pace. Or you can draw out every detail, every set piece, every moment. Between the two, you’ll find varied opinions on which option is better. The answer, though, is fairly straightforward. Your pace should be whatever you want it to be. If you lean towards slow, detailed, drawn-out scenes, then that’s absolutely what you should write. If you enjoy keeping a quick, rapid-fire pace, then you should definitely keep doing that.

No one choice is going to win over every potential reader, but the thing is, there are potential readers for every choice. If you’re overly concerned with what you think your readers will want, don’t be. Write from your heart. Write what feels right to you, and your ideal readers will eventually discover you, stumble upon you, or have your book recommended to them by others.

The worst thing you can do is write in a style other than the one you enjoy working in. In that case, your work will become a hassle and a chore, and the result will be greatly joyless.

But once you choose how you want to write, then what can you do to maintain your pacing? Look for areas of inconsistency. Perhaps you’re writing with short, abrupt one-sentence paragraphs, then all of a sudden, you have an entire page of unadulterated purple prose.

Make sure you don’t slow down nor speed up unnecessarily. Use changes in pace as a tool to convey your story and hack the reader’s mind to bend it towards your will. If you want heart-pounding tension, you’re not going to get it like this:

He meandered into the field of tulips. The yellow and orange flowers stood in stark contrast to the white tulips that he was used to seeing in his own garden. The grass, only six inches tall, was just long enough to brush his ankles, yet not so long that the morning dew dampened the bottom of his pant legs.

It’s not very tense. It’s not very fast. And, for the moment, it’s not very interesting. Although the interest in a story is not dependent on the pace of your storytelling, if you want to increase the tension, then you need to write short, curt sentences.

He bolted into the field of tulips. One of the bulbs was crushed under his foot. He didn’t stop to examine it. He couldn’t.

The pacing in this second example is rapid and concise. It’s tense. It brings a feeling of unease to the narrative, as well as offering some foreboding foreshadowing in the form of a crushed tulip.

Remember, the goal of pacing is to set the mood for your readers. It’s to keep their eyes constantly flying from word to word to word, and at times to give them a respite. We all need a bathroom break every once in a while, after all, and an entire novel unfolding at breakneck speed all the way to the climax is simply exhausting.

In the next issue, we’re going to talk about the big picture items that you need to address when editing. Be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter to be alerted when it is released.