How To Subvert Expectations (Correctly) 101

Zardnaar

Hero
Well Game of Thrones has finished and the tears are flowing. Being generous the last 2 seasons were a bit rushed, being less generous they botched the season/show. This is particularly noticeable by how good the show was back in seasons 1-4. There was no real gradual decline (well OK season 5 and 6 perhaps) but the show fell off a cliff season 7 or 8 YMMV.

I would argue this is because they pulled to many swings that the fans were not expecting, made no sense and/or left massive plot holes. Just to be clear there is nothing wrong with subverting expectations but the execution and follow up are key. For example perhaps the most famous one- Luke I am Your Father is one but they followed it up well in Return of the Jedi and it did not fundamentally change Luke as a character. There is also nothing wrong with things being a bit predictable either, for example the Empire being defeated was not a shock but the journey from point A to B and the conclusion is.

The Game of Thrones books are another one. They subvert expectations well in a way that is a lot more realistic perhaps than say Elric of Melinbone which is another example but those books were written in a different time. Elric of Melinbone probably doesn't stand up well today but compared with other stuff from the 60's and 70's I would argue it does. To me subverting expections is basically a joke term used to describe plot twists that make no sense or are poorly handled. The term could also be used where things just get ignored and there is no payoff to any of the plot seed planted in books, movies, TV shows, or even video games.

Game of Thrones and The Last Jedi are kind of the poster child here, but those example also had problems before them. In GoT's case the books themselves decline in quality around book 4, while The Last Jedi had The Force Awakens before it which also had a few problems. In general you probably want to overlook small things while larger problems are a lot harder to overlook. Its also easier to overlook some things if the movie is also enjoyable. For example in TLJ Luke goes away to basically die, but leaves behind a map to his location (huh wtf?). In the same movie they throw away Finns character progression from TFA for no reason I can make out effectively putting him back where he started at the start of TFA. Expectations subverted.

Things also do not have to make to much sense when compared to the real world. Vancian magic in D&D, superheros in the MCU, the Force in Star Wars. They do however need to make sense in the context of the world they live in. Wonder Women (from the movie) is a good example for all the right reasons, she got trained from a very young age and she is a demigoddess to boot. Superman is from another planet, Spiderman gets bit by a radioactive spider. All silly from a real world PoV its like they are comic book characters or something. But it makes sense in their universe. Luke, Anakin and Rey being great pilots makes sense, Rey using force powers untrained not so much. This is part of the world building that goes into media. Not all things need a lot such as an action movie but for things that are adaptions of novels or cover an arc such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones it helps.

Now what happens if you subvert expectations in a bad way. The three main things that can go wrong here are .

1. Subverting things in a way for shock value that doesn't expand or enhance the story in any significant way.

or

2. Overdoing the plot twists or having to many of them.

3. Not following up or explaining left over plot points.

Number 1 undermines your story, number 2 kind of destroys the stories cohesion while number 3 makes things seem a bit pointless. There are videos floating around of G RR Martin explaining this that if you build up a story where the butler did it, but then the big reveal is the maid did it (with no real explanation) your story will suffer. In The Empire Strikes back we have the reveal that Vader is Lukes father, in RoTJ we have the reveal that Leia is his sister. Vader turning on the Emperor may or may not be one and it was foreshadowed (I can sense good in you) so it works. In Game of Thrones a little bit of foreshadowing was there but the pacing was all wrong and fan expectations had been built up for something else especially in the case of the Nights King (go watch season 1 again). There are good surprises and bad surprises. And if you have to many (The Last Jedi) you get to the point where nothing really matters as the author/director/writer etc can do anything and yell "surprise" and then try and justify it. Once or twice sure, but don't over do it.

So how do you do subvert expectations right? Well you need a good story and compelling characters to pull it off without destroying what came before. If you played the game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic that games big reveal is another good example. Star Wars is just to easy to use. How about Star Wars legends: Thrawn Trilogy. People complain about TFA being a remake of ANH so what did the Thrawn Trilogy do that was different from fan expectations?.

1. The force was fairly minimised. The main villain used his brains over force powers followed by.

2. A lack of superweapons. The Empire did not have a death star in their back pockets.

3. A compelling villain. How do you top Vader or compete with Vader? TFA gave us Darth Emo a poor retread of Vader while Heir to the Empire gave us Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is different than Vader, a lot smarter but no real threat in terms of personal combat ability. He has some ability but Luke would choip him into pieces. And Disney has reused Thrawn in the new canon he is that good (pity they didn't reuse Mara).

4. A very different world of the movies. The Empire is still the villains but they suffered a major defeat at Endor. Thrawn has 4 Star Destroyers. Smaller than Vaders squadron in TESB and a lot smaller than the Imperial Fleet at Endor.

5. It builds logically on what came before. Han and Leia are happily married, Lukes a Jedi, Lando has his own business, the Empire still has a few ships left over.

So the fans of Star Wars get a bit of what they want and it wraps up a few loose ends from RoTJ in a fairly logical way. The Trilogy also covers how Thrawn goes from 4 Star Destroyrs to rebuilding the Imperial Fleet using things like new ships, clones, and strategy. It also covers what happened to the Empire and what happened in the Star Wars universe fairly well. Expectations subverted though (in a good way). Up to a point you want to engage in service, they're the ones paying for your material. But if you pull to many stunts well they may no longer be your fans. THis applies to multiple forms of media, I would not expect fans of Metallica to buy their sutff if they did a country and western album.
 
Zardnaar's Law: "The longer a post by Zardnaar or discussion involving Zardnaar, the greater the probability of it becoming a discussion on Star Wars, in particular how disappointing the Last Jedi was, approaches 1."

(I jest playfully, Z)
 

Janx

Adventurer
Much as I enjoyed revealing the flaw in Avengers (I didn't) by seeing the smart things somebody else else said. There's 3 threads I saw on GoT that most people don't get.

a) Apparently some bad stuff happened to Danerys near the end, and she had no support network to cope with it. Might explain why she did shocking things that I didn't see (quit watching when Ramsey got rapey).

b) George is a Pantser, which means he made stuff up as he went along and saw where the characters wanted to go. This has the drawback of not tying things up easily or hitting emotional points that outliners can do. In Season 8, they needed that, so they outlined it, and forced those emotional points to happen. That's a jarring change, particularly on a final season with a short runway.

c) Danerys was always a narcissist. She'd been about this awesome kingdom that she'd never been to and decided it was hers. She sent her army out, and was just fine with raping then. Then shows up and "oh you poor people" to earn sympathy so long as it fed her position.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
It's easy to use most people will know what you are talking about.
OTOH, there are many people that disagree with you, and given that it's a point of contention, perhaps it is not the best example.

In fact, it might be a good example of why, with certain fanbases, you can't subvert expectations successfully, because those fanbases have unrealistic demands and expectations.* The only subversion they will allow in what has been established is what they already know to be true(tm), which, by definition, cannot be subversion.



*If you want comfort food, you're not going to want something spicy.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
OTOH, there are many people that disagree with you, and given that it's a point of contention, perhaps it is not the best example.

In fact, it might be a good example of why, with certain fanbases, you can't subvert expectations successfully, because those fanbases have unrealistic demands and expectations.*
More specifically, when you are talking about a large fanbase, they aren't one, "the fanbase". They are a loose aggregation of different subgroups, who get different things out of the works. Each one will allow for different subversions of expectations, and often there isn't much overlap - a subversion that works for one subgroup becomes the hill another will die on.

It becomes a game of, "...you can't please all of the people all of the time."

Marry that with how pretty much all the fan subgroups feel entitled to have the exact form they want, and it gets ugly.
 

Ryujin

Adventurer
b) George is a Pantser, which means he made stuff up as he went along and saw where the characters wanted to go. This has the drawback of not tying things up easily or hitting emotional points that outliners can do. In Season 8, they needed that, so they outlined it, and forced those emotional points to happen. That's a jarring change, particularly on a final season with a short runway.
I immediately contrast that, in my mind, with little known author/screenwriter Matt Vancil. He's essentially been writing in the same universe since 1997 through movies, books, and comics, with common threads only now starting to come together. There's something extremely satisfying in seeing something from 1999 popping up in a movie, in 2013, for those who were paying attention. (I had to have it pointed out to me ;) )
 

Zardnaar

Hero
More specifically, when you are talking about a large fanbase, they aren't one, "the fanbase". They are a loose aggregation of different subgroups, who get different things out of the works. Each one will allow for different subversions of expectations, and often there isn't much overlap - a subversion that works for one subgroup becomes the hill another will die on.

It becomes a game of, "...you can't please all of the people all of the time."

Marry that with how pretty much all the fan subgroups feel entitled to have the exact form they want, and it gets ugly.
I'm open to most stories as long as they don't butcher existing lore and characters. Luke for example. 4E nuking the Realms was a bridge to far 3.0s wasn't to bad.

I'm big on character development and world building. Special effects only to enhance the story. Not a massive fan of transformers for example.

There's certain franchises I don't know that much about but I know enough that you don't mess with them (Batman).
 

Eltab

Visitor
The conclusion of Game of Thrones, and the visible drop in quality as the TV series outran the printed novels, suggest that Hollywood scriptwriters need to get out of their bubble and have some new, breath-of-fresh-air experiences to reinfuse their creativity. Fortunately, there is Bollywood and Nollywood and the Japanese anime studios and European theaters, to go observe and ask questions. And reading Hollywood vs America - even though it is 20 years old - provides a crisp definition of the problem, so the entertainment industry can move directly to creating a solution.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
Had a thought of the new Terminator trailer. They might subvert expectations by having the new girl they save be the new Sarah Connor and her child is the new resistance leader. With altered timelines you can even justify it in universe.

But if they do that and basically retcon John Connor out it makes T1 and T2 pointless and those are the two movies people like.

That's not going to go down well. If they do that and the movie flops it should be fairly obvious why. As an added bonus they recycled T1.
 
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Imaculata

Adventurer
I think the trick to a good story twist, is set up, and pay off.

You need to give the characters enough motivation to justify the twist. This is why the final season of Game of Thrones fell flat in my opinion. There is nothing wrong with having Dany become the villain, but it needs to be properly set up and motivated. Earlier seasons of Game of Thrones were fantastic because every twist felt like a logical outcome of earlier events in the story. The best example of this is perhaps the battle between the Mountain and the Viper. We know that prince Oberyn is obsessed with getting revenge and is very sure of himself, and we know that this trial by combat is Tyrion's only escape from death. So Oberyn has got to win this fight, right? And for the first part of the fight, it seems that is exactly what will happen, until it suddenly all goes horribly wrong. However, as surprising as Oberyn's death is, it is set up ahead of time. We see him showboating and being way too sure of his victory, while we also know how strong and dangerous the Mountain is.

But then there's the pay off; it has to lead to a satisfying plot development. Oberyn's death raises the stakes and puts Tyrion in an even more hopeless situation that before.
Likewise, the Red Wedding is probably one of Game of Thrones' best most shocking twists. It is also the catalyst for all the exciting events that follow. Robb Stark has to lose the war in order for the story to continue. This was The Last Jedi's greatest failing in my opinion. Throwing out twists just for the sake of subverting expectations is no good. The plot can't be left stranded. If you set up expectations, and then surprise the audience by having no satisfying conclusion, that is just poor story telling.

I try to keep these ideas in mind when writing story for my D&D campaigns. I try to set up expectations and red herrings for my players, and then surpise them with something exciting that they didn't see coming, and yet is a logical outcome of the plot that pushes the story in an exciting new direction. This is why I am not going to kill off my big villain early (like in TLJ), because then where does the story go from there? I don't want to surprise my players with an anti-climax that doesn't lead anywhere.
 
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Zardnaar

Hero
Had to babysit my niece
She's ten years old. Went to see Aladin or Avengers she wanted Detective Pikachu.

Pokemon had a couple of twists in it but followed up well.

TLDR Pokemon makes more sense than other movies.
 

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