Shock vs. Subverted Expectations

literary twist (gears in the mind)

Ciao, SEers! The last two times I chatted with you, we were talking about clichés in fiction, namely in horror and in mystery and sci-fi. After revealing potential solutions, we discussed the fact that the common element in the solutions was that they all subverted the readers’ expectations.

Today, I want to discuss the difference between shocking the reader and subverting their expectations.

Shock for shock’s sake, unless you’re going for a gore-factor in horror, isn’t a good thing. (Even then, that’s not necessarily a good thing.) You might get the reader to gasp and recoil, but you also might make them put your book down and walk away. Shock shouldn’t disgust or irritate or frustrate. There needs to be a purpose and intent behind everything you do. There should be breadcrumbs leading to every reveal, and when the moment happens, the wow-factor shouldn’t be negative.

Hence the subverted expectation.

I know, it doesn’t have the same “ring” to it as shock. The connotation isn’t as big. It’s not as negative, either. It can be big, though.

A subverted expectation is exactly what it sounds like. The reader expected one thing, and the author gave him something else. It might be subtle. But it might be huge. It’s a twist. Think about The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Se7en. Those movies surprised a lot of viewers at their ends.

The difference between shock and subverted expectations.

  • Subverted expectations enhance story moving forward, where shock for shock’s sake just leaves things flat but shock well-planned and well-executed is a delight. Take Knives Out. Spoilers ahead. Part way through, it switches from a whodunit to asking how will she get away with it? And viewers switch genres with Johnson and try to figure out how she’ll get away with it the whole time until near the very end when Johnson subverts expectations again and switches back to the whodunit. I posit it’s not for shock’s sake and, in fact, it was a whodunit all along. We were just misdirected. And that was the brilliance of it. That’s why the twist worked so well. It was well-planned and well-executed.
  • Subverted expectations require strong verisimilitude (truth) in the story. Whatever the reveal is, it can’t come out of thin air. That will read as in illogical “shock” rather than a well-earned surprise. In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark’s death took everyone by surprise. But after everyone got over the shock of it all, was it really illogical? No. It made perfect sense. Of course Joffrey would order his death.
  • Writers make promises to their readers. We can’t break them. An example of a failed promise? The third Star Wars trilogy, Rey’s parents. Twice, actually. First, there’s a big build up as to who she is, then we’re told she’s no one. Viewers everywhere were so let down. Then in the next film, we’re told she’s a Palpatine. That’s worse than her being a nobody. These aren’t examples of the writers subverting the fans’ expectations. These are examples of the writers going for shock value. And they did shock us. But not in a good way. No clues were dropped leading up to either of these reveals, so they weren’t earned. And the “shock” of the reveals wasn’t good. The lesson to take away is to lay the groundwork in advance so the subverted expectation is earned.

I hope you understand the difference now between shock for the sake of shock and a subverted expectation that is carefully planned and executed. Do you have any favorite literary twists you’d like to share? Let’s talk about them.

Staci Troilo Bio

55 thoughts on “Shock vs. Subverted Expectations

  1. I’m not quite back to visiting/responding to my favorite blog posts yet (SOON, though), but I had to stop to read this post, Staci, as soon as I saw the title. And I’m glad I did. You touched on one of my biggest complaints about some books, and one of my favorite things about others: whether or not that trail of breadcrumbs, hints, and clues has been carefully laid down. It has to be there, even if readers don’t quite pick up on it at first. But as others say above, when you go back over it in your mind after the big reveal, it should suddenly be obvious that the clues were in place all along, and it should also become clear that upon examination, they really didn’t point to your red herring.

    As for shock just for the sake of shock, I quit reading Stephen King years ago, partly for that reason. And because too many of his books are just plain mean-spirited. It isn’t that he can’t write, of course. It’s what he writes that bothers me, and I’m a fan of scary books, including full-on horror stories now and then. But of the two (probably) biggest names in the genre, I prefer Dean Koontz by far, largely because there’s always an element of love in his books that helps offset the horror. And honestly, I think Misery was the most hateful book I’ve ever read. It wasn’t scary. It was simply mean. There are some wonderfully authors out there who write horror with just the right amount of compassion in at least some of their characters, and that works far better for me. (Touches of humor don’t hurt, either, even in truly frightening stories.)

    Thanks for such a clear explanation of the differences between Shock vs Subverted Expectations. I’m keeping this post in my Writing References folders to remind me to do it right. Great post, for sure! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please excuse typos, Staci. I hit the button too soon! sigh I’m out of practicing at visiting blogs and commenting, and I haven’t finished my first cuppa Earl Grey. (That’s the excuse I’m going with, anyway.) 😂😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

      • No worries about the typos. That just tells me you were so excited to chat, your fingers were flying over the keys. And I’m happy to chat back! Glad you’re feeling well enough to start visiting again.

        Misery was a rough one. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the sledgehammer scene out of my head. I like a touch of humanity and humor in my stories, too. You need a break from the heavy stuff in any genre, I think.

        Thanks so much for dropping by!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good thing you forgave my typos! I even made them in my apology! 🤣 And you’re right. I’m totally out of practice, was very excited about your post, and am in desperate need of new glasses! 😆

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Staci! My fantasy series has all sorts of twists in it, and some of them had a bit of shock factor, but I did try to leave little breadcrumbs along the path. My hope was that once the reader came to the twist, they could reflect on the story and see the breadcrumbs. An author who I feel does this brilliantly is JK Rowling. She is an expert of sprinkling breadcrumbs and revealing the culprit at the end in a surprising manner. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Rowling was fabulous with dropping clues. Her plotting was phenomenal.

      It’s important to lay breadcrumbs. I love the twists, and I think readers like to reflect back and see the breadcrumbs they overlooked. Thanks, Yvette.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There were subverted expectations in ZOOTOPIA, too–it was a very well constructed script. A stray compliment during a chase scene leads to the heroine being able to enlist the help of a very powerful figure, and the villain turns out to be pretty much the very last person expected (and a surprise at the end which was still reasonably signaled if you were paying attention).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Staci! I like trying to figure things out and if there is just a shock, I come away disappointed. Great examples, Sixth Sense is one that you can go back and see the clues. I love that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. An excellent post, Staci. I totally agree about the shock factor and would drop a book in a heartbeat for that reason. However, a climactic buildup is intriguing and satisfying when the big reveal happens. You gave such excellent examples here. I was devastated when Ned Stark was killed, but yes, I can see where it was necessary to move the story forward. Thank you for sharing this great piece of writing advice!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post, Staci. I’ve put down more than a few books because the “shock” was pure horror. On the other hand, I loved your examples (The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Se7e). They were perfect. Thank you for helping me see the difference between shock and subverted expectations. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent post, Staci. I get the difference. Reminds me of when I was reading Misery by Stephen King. I threw the book across the room when the woman took a sledge hammer to the author’s ankles. Talk about shock. Took me a while to pick it up off the floor. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because I didn’t see the end coming. So clever. Loved Sixth Sense for the same reason. But it’s tricky to misdirect a reader/viewer through an entire story. Subverted expectations sprinkled throughout sure add to the fun, though.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I guess I’m right there with Robbie and Jaye and Anita. I’m a psychopath. 🙂 Seriously, I’m not into gore scenes. And even though I read a lot of psychological fiction, I hate it when a writer pulls in a totally unnecessary shocking ending. I don’t mind the shock per se, but what they decided to do with the main character. I’ve read a couple of those lately and it’s disappointing.

    Great post, Staci.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: Shock vs. Subverted Expectations — Story Empire – yazım'yazgısı (typography)

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