Thursday, April 7, 2022

Something offbeat: subverting expectations

This is Joseph.

Back in the day, there was a lot of discussion about how shows like Game of Thrones felt refreshing because they subverted expectations. Part of this was a willingness to reject literary tropes like plot armor that allowed for important and beloved characters to die. But this technique is a masterclass one, and hard to get right. It requires foreshadowing so that the reader or watcher can look back, afterwards, and feel like the resolution was expected and they'd have guessed it if they'd paid closer attention.

A good example is the Mountain and the Viper. Part of what makes the ending (spoilers for a 8 year old show follow) work is that it is so carefully set up. Bronn actually goes through, beat by beat, the way that one could win and the vulnerability to one mistake. The Viper uses an innovative method of attack that makes sense as being high risk, high reward. Tyrion even comments on the lack of a helmet, which ends up making a big difference in the event. The flaws that cause the Viper to lose are set up for many episodes and are the reason he volunteered for the fight. We end up with conflicting expectations: it is possible that the Viper could win (and he comes close) but it is clear from the beginning that the actual outcome is the most likely.

Clever foreshadowing of how it could all fall apart makes the twist make sense. We know the stakes and it is made clear how this could all come together. 

Now consider how different the killing of the Night King is. The foreshadowing is weak and the early part of the episode shows Arya struggling to hide from Zombies, who are hyper-aware. So when she ends up sneaking past a horde there is no real foreshadowing for what is about to happen. It's actually worse -- previously when a character got themselves in a deadly situation, adversaries did not suddenly get slow or incompetent unless that was also set up. 

A tragedy is made good by the failure of the protagonist to overcome known flaws (Hamlet's lack of decisiveness, for example, leads to disaster). By highlighting these personality traits, it makes sense when they end up coming back to haunt the character. 

This also works the same way for clever victories. They need to be set up in a way that we can all revel in the cleverness of the character. A pretty decent example is Die Hard, where the character is trying to alert authorities to the presence of terrorists. The blocks set up by the antagonists show them as competent and the final solution is precisely telegraphed by previous efforts by the protagonist. It feels earned. 

But the worst way of subverting expectations is to just do something unexpected because it contradicts the previous evidence and character development. There was a comic Armageddon 2001 where the ending was leaked. So they switched the character who was the secret villain. To one of the only characters seen alive in the future and fighting the villain. We even see that over a multitude of futures that this character fights the secret antagonist but never becomes them. They created surprise, because one of the only 2 characters actually ruled out by the investigation as definitely not the secret villain was the secret villain. Yes, we were surprised. No, it was not a good surprise.

I think that the key to this sort of "bait and switch" is to make conflicting promises. By following a trope you induce expectations in the reader. But by clever foreshadowing and a set of different promises (e.g., we are going to be realistic even when it hurts) then you end up with the reader being both surprised but accepting that the switch was done well. 

Surprise is easy. Smart surprise in storytelling is very hard and it is often better to just be conventional then to be simply bad. 

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