I’ve been seeing this phrase thrown around a lot over the last year. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not really sure what it means any more. Some people seem to use it in place of the phrase ‘plot twist’. Others talk about it taking a traditional plot point and turning it on its head. I think there’s another group that claims it’s when an author builds up to a certain event and then pulls a fast one at the last minute. Honestly, that last one sounds cruel and on the same level as ‘shock deaths’. So, what is subverting expectations and has it become the new fad?
To figure out a definition, we really only have to look at the pieces. Sure, there’s nuance depending on how you use it, but what is at the core? Well, expectations are what readers create as they follow a story. Most will begin to form their own predictions about what will happen, which comes with the building of tension. This can take the form of desiring current romantic pairings to simply praying that a character lives. It is something that we think or believe will happen. Subversion is when you undermine the authority of a system . . . In this case, it’s when you undermine the predictions. Whatever the reader thought would happen doesn’t take place and they are left with something they didn’t see coming, which really does sound like a plot twist. This can be done intentionally or by accident, but either way holds a risk.
I do think this literary device is getting overused a bit. A lot of movies and TV shows use the phrase in marketing. Reviewers praise or raze a work depending on how well the subversion comes off. Yet, you do have a challenge here, which might be why so many people are using it. Some readers will get the right prediction, so you can really only subvert a percentage of the audience. The only way to avoid that is to blatantly push for a specific point and then change it with barely any, or no, foreshadowing. It will get the audience to be surprised, but those who invested a lot of time into their predictions might not like the trick. Still, you see this getting used more and more, especially as our entertainment is flooded with remakes, reboots, sequels, and spin-offs. Subverting expectations is seen as the best way to keep things fresh.
The thing is that this runs into a Shaymalan problem. Remember when he became known solely as the director who does plot twists? Well, all of his following movies were watched with the plot twist expected, so they didn’t have the same impact. Even ‘Last Airbender’s’ plot twist of being more horrible than we imagined was . . . What do you mean that wasn’t a twist? Anyway, if everyone is subverting expectations then readers will begin to expect the subversion. Then, the only way to surprise them is by not subverting their expectations, but you can’t really do that when they’re only predicting the subversion of their prediction. So, they aren’t surprised when they’re subverted and I think my editor is currently on a plane to beat me with an Oxford dictionary.
Personally, I don’t think I will use this as much or at all. I will do plot twists that have clues throughout the work, but a sudden surprise that comes from nothing doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe I’ll change my mind down the road, but I really want to give the audience most of what they are expecting. The romances won’t always match up, but that’s a different issue. I think I’d cause more harm than good if I suddenly revealed that Clyde has been a werewolf throughout War of Nytefall or that Luke Callindor is really the reincarnation of Baron Kernaghan in Legends of Windemere. None of that makes any sense and they don’t even cover predictions. As you can see, I’m really bad at this.
I’ve heard people say that subverting expectations is an art. You really need to work hard on it and master the delivery. I can see this as being true, but I also see many doing it without thinking. This dilutes the water and those who are skilled get put in the same boat as the sloppy bandwagon jumpers. There’s a big difference between gracefully threading a needle to sew on a patch than stapling the thing while the person is still wearing the pair of pants. Hmmm, that analogy might not have worked. Not a good sign.
So, what does everyone else think of subverting expectations? Do you have any tips? Has it ever been attempted in a story you liked and made you walk away?