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.