Think about a book, movie or television show that has stuck with you over the years, but not for good reasons. What story left you speechless in a bad way when it was all told? Did the lighthearted book you picked up have a sudden graphic sex scene in it that made you uncomfortable? Did you go into the movie theater expecting Luke Skywalker to solve all of the main character’s problems? Did your heroic dragon queen go insane and burn everyone alive at the end of the final season of your show?
Let’s talk about the modern trend of subverting expectations in storytelling, and why you, as a writer, should really consider the dangers of it before attempting to do so in your work.
What Subverting Expectations Means
Simply put, you expect something the minute you sit down to consume a story. You enter into nearly every storytelling experience knowing certain things about the story being told. Whether it’s the trailers for a movie, the ads for a television show or the back cover or section of the store from which you picked up the book, you have expectations about that story before you ever start diving in.
We may or may not be completely cognizant of all of the various elements that are found in each genre, but internally, we anticipate them. For comedies, we expect there to be things that make us laugh, a main character who ends up happy in the end. For horror, we expect things to make us uncomfortable, and knowing the main character may not make it out alive is part of the fun of the experience. Every genre and sub-genre has its core elements, and because of that we think we know what we’re getting into.
When we do not get what we expect from the story in some way, this is called subverting expectations. The storyteller has made a deliberate effort to do something unexpected in the story, and they are not always successful at giving audiences a rewarding experience while doing so.
The Magician and the Table Cloth
Think of subverting expectations this way. A well-executed subversion of expectations is like a magician who pulls away the table cloth, leaving behind everything that was there without moving. When we see this phenomenon, we marvel at it. All of those delicate things that were sitting on top of the table cloth are still standing, and we are happy with the end result as an audience. It is absolutely possible to do this trick, but it takes a degree of excellence to pull it off.
Now picture an untrained individual attempting the same trick. They grab the table cloth, pull it, and all of the things on top of the table come flying off, shattering on the ground. While that can be entertaining for shock value for some, the audience at a whole may say “well, that just didn’t go well,” and walk away without being impressed.
This is the difference between subverting expectations well and subverting expectations poorly.
How Subverting Expectations Can Work Well
In certain stories, subverting expectations can work extremely well. Take The Sixth Sense (1999) for example. The entire movie revolves around the idea that this little boy can see and talk to dead people. The first time we see the movie, we are absolutely led to believe that Bruce Willis is alive and well until at the end when we realize – oh, my God – he’s been dead the whole time.
The reason this twist works well is because, after watching it again, we should have seen it coming the whole time, but we are refusing to believe it. We, as the audience, follow Bruce Willis’ character who doesn’t know he’s dead either. But we literally saw him die right there at the beginning of the movie. He got shot, and then the very next scene he’s fine. No sign of any injury. No mention of the gunshot. And who does he meet right after? The boy who can see ghosts.
We look at ourselves as audience members and think “how could I have missed something so obvious?” And then, we want to re-watch the movie again as soon as possible to go back and pick up all the other clues along the way that we may have missed the first time. This time, we bring friends to watch it with us, just so we can watch the expression on their face when the realization finally dawns on them, too.
The magician pulled the cloth away, and not one part of the storytelling was ruined by doing so. We are left marveling on about how incredible the experience was.
It’s important to note, however, that a twist ending from a filmmaker who has a long career of twist endings is NOT subverting expectations – the twist has become the expectation.
How to Fail Miserably when Subverting Expectations
Where to begin? There are probably more cases of subverting expectations causing a story to bomb than there are subverted expectations causing a story to be well-received. First off, genre plays a big part in how well a subversion of expectations will be received. The genre is often-times the biggest part of the reason they decide to take part in a story as an audience.
If you have a film that’s sold in the trailer as a horror movie in the trailer and it’s really a romance film, people are going to be confused. If it’s sold to audiences as a drama, but doesn’t take itself seriously, then it will probably not go over well. Likewise, if it’s sold as a slap-stick comedy and you make people depressed for an extended period of time during the course of the film, you have done yourself and your audience a disservice by subverting expectations.
That brings me to the movie I still talk about after all this time. Click (2006) may be the greatest example of subverting expectations that went very wrong that I can give as an example.
Every trailer for this movie gave audiences absolutely no reason to believe it would be anything but a normal Adam Sandler comedy. It looked like it was going to be along the same vein as all of his earlier films, complete with silliness and dirty humor. And, for the most part, it started off that way.
And then came the sequence where Adam Sandler’s character got stuck on fast forward in his life, spiraling insanely fast toward a future where he has failed as a father, focused on business, and all of the happy experiences in his life were simply skipped as he approaches his inevitable death.
When I walked into the movie expecting to see funny hijinks with this magical remote control, I didn’t even consider it would give me a major existential crisis. The rest of the film, even though it tries to bring the audience back around and give them a happy ending, is absolutely ruined. The movie had failed in a spectacular fashion in subverting expectations, and I’ll always remember it being terrible because of this.
While subverting expectations can work, and the popularity of stories that successfully do this often encourages others to emulate it, you should really be careful about doing this in your stories. If you are going to do it, be deliberate about it, and give clues to the audience all along the way – including in the way the story is sold to others.
Don’t be that guy that ends up with all the glass plates shattered on the ground after pulling the tablecloth away.