Example storylines and plots to show writers how to defy expectations
It’s all about storytelling. Engaging media is essential for creating engaging and entertaining content. If done well, compelling, real characters will keep viewers coming back for more.
Subversion of expectations can create a sense of eagerness in many genres. When we believe something, only for it to change or for a character to have different motives than we had previously believed, this is called subversion of expectations. There’s often an “aha!” moment when the thrilling realization dawns.
The surprise of the unexpected is at the heart of the enjoyment of subverted expectations. This surprise is more likely to be revealed the more people interact with it, especially in today’s world of streaming media and instant viewing. You can access all kinds of storytelling with just a click. It is easy to get lost in the plot of your favorite movies and shows. Spoiler culture is rampant. Those who want to avoid spoilers — accidental or intentional — in popular media must tread carefully.
If you are creative, how do you subvert your audience’s expectations while gaining a loyal fanbase? These are just a few examples.
Setting the tone
Popular consumption has been long dominated by the whodunit or murder mystery. The classic structure of the genre means that it has remained powerful, whether in cinematic or literary form (think Agatha Christie). The death occurs in at least one instance, and often it is within a very limited set of circumstances. For example, the characters travel on a train and are given a deadline to find the culprit or cause. They often discover that the culprit was someone they thought innocent (it was the butler all along). ).
Although your story and characters may not be in the mystery genre, you can create an atmosphere of uncertainty and guide viewers to question the reliability of certain characters by dropping hints throughout.
Knives Out is one example. The movie depicts an isolated family living in an old house. Marta, Marta’s protagonist, is an outsider who is trusted by the family. We are then set up to discover why Marta is suspicious. Throughout the movie, we are also shown how to treat certain family members with suspicion and then to trust them again. We are both shocked and vindicated when we discover that the family is not to be trusted. They have been using an elaborate trick to get Marta to submit.
This format is also used in the novel and film The Girl on the Train. We see Rachel as unreliable, only to find out that her ex gaslighted her into believing she couldn’t trust her instincts. It is satisfying to see her face the truth, and then take revenge.
This incremental storytelling method also shows that you trust your viewers to remember details and keep score between characters. You can’t expect your audience to forget what you expected.
Some expectation subversions don’t require any warming up or groundwork. Their power lies in their ability to come out of nowhere and completely change everything the audience thought they knew about this fictional world.
This tactic is best illustrated in the film The Usual Suspects. The story is told through the interrogation of “Verbal” Kint, the protagonist (so-called because of his frequent speech), one of five suspects of a crime. Verbal’s perspective is trusted because he tells the story. It is only in the final minutes that Verbal and the investigator discover that Verbal has meticulously constructed a story to reveal that he was actually the guilty one. He has escaped before we even realize.
Put the tropes of on their heads
It doesn’t matter what genre you choose to write in, you should be familiar with the common tropes and stock characters that stories in that genre face. Whether that be a manic pixie dream girl, a stuck-in-the-elevator-together moment, or a turning point in a character’s development, you are bound to come across some point of plotting or characterization that will strike viewers as cliche if executed poorly–and brilliant if you can subvert it.
The Queen’s Gambit, a novel and limited series, centers on Beth, an orphan who is adopted by a middle aged couple. Alton, the husband, is emotionally absent and soon enough, physically absent. Alma, the wife, decides to become a mother to Beth. Alma is instrumental in helping her adopted child achieve fame and fortune in chess. Many stories about orphaned children involve cruel, negligent, or absent adults. Alma subverts all of our expectations and is a fascinating character in her own right.
Audiences love to see their expectations lowered, but as with all aspects of storytelling, it must be done with intention. This has been a core principle of storytelling excellence for hundreds of years. Subverting expectations is not going to go out of fashion anytime soon, from the 1800s penny-dreadfuls to the cultural-defining phenomenon of Game of Thrones. This gives you ample time to master it in all your work, regardless of what you are trying to do.