Subverting Expectations

This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #005.

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 movie sequel can’t be announced without thousands of enthralled fans dissecting every nanosecond of material they’ve been offered, analyzing 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 regards 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 story-telling 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 almost never 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, and he ends up winning the race by default. Like 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 that 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 after years of character development and foreshadowing that depicted her as level-headed and sensible, and then be killed, might absolutely 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 movie 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 those fans’ intelligences. 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?


The Writer’s Everything

This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.


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