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Subverting expectations ≠ good storytelling

Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, May 17, 2019

When creating a story you begin leading the reader down a path. You know where you’re going, or at least can pretend to know, but the reader does not. But, with some well laid out clues and foreshadowing, they can begin to piece the map together. Now here comes the crucial bit. Are the readers right in their expectations or are you, ultimately, subverting them?

Subverting expectations is neither a good nor or a bad thing. The term is neutral after all. However, the subversion has to be earned. And yes, this is spoiler territory for the entirety of Game of Thrones again but it’s a great example.

Throughout eight seasons of Game of Thrones, we have had a series of expectations built up for us, only to have them be “subverted”. It has been a deliberate narrative device employed by the writers to illicit a response from us however that response was not earned. In season 1 of GOT, Ned Stark, a very well loved character both by the fans and in-universe, found himself on the losing end of an execution, a subversion that had many fans shocked. Given Ned Stark was a prominent point of view character, the idea that he could be dispatched like this rocked the foundations of the audience’s expectations and, as a result, fundamentally changed them.

The audience went in, expecting the main characters to be safe. The bad guys would trip on their own swords and the good guys would win. Ned Stark lived by a code of honour, a quality we, as a society, regard as a virtue. We rooted for Ned Stark and believed he could triumph over a seemingly corrupt monarchy because we, as an audience, have been taught to value honour and that it will eventually win.

However, our expectations that honour always wins was subverted when in fact, Ned’s honourable actions were used against him and he was ultimately punished for it. What that subversion then went on to do was set up a new expectation that no character, regardless of how important they were, were safe. At any one time they could be taken away from us.

Fast forward to season 8. No longer are the characters’ very lives at stake, even when pitted against the very threat that’s been building since the first ever episode; The Night King himself. Arya, who up until this point has had very little to do with the “Threat Beyond The Wall” plotline is seen fit to nip it in the bud over Jon Snow who’s entire arc has revolved around it. His arc, the classic hero's journey, now feels unfulfilled as everything he has struggled through amounted to nothing as it was stolen by his little sister for the sake of a subversion.

The subversion did not feel earned as these were not realistic consequences of their actions. Rather, to create this set up they had to completely undermine the characters at their core and deny the audience a satisfying conclusion to the characters’ arcs. Thus, subverting the expectations of the audience has, in fact, resulted in very poor writing particularly when juxtaposed with the ending to season 1.

In the end the biggest subversion of the show was how badly they would end this epic and that the real threat to Westeros was not Cersei, Daenerys or even the Night King. It was the writers themselves.

Thanks guys. :|

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bunnicarot at 7:51AM, May 19, 2019

Thrones has been on a downward spiral for me personally ever since Tyrion left Kings Landing and hooked up with Daenerys. The political intrigue and nuance of earlier seasons is pretty much gone at this point. The show just feels like it's trying to subvert just to subvert similar to what The Last Jedi did. ( I'm one of the few that don't hate that movie but to me that was one of its problems.)

bravo1102 at 10:54AM, May 18, 2019

Some people just don't get stuff like this. The two writers went for The fall of Berlin, the firebombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and 9/11 all rolled into one. With all the tropes. Arya in the ashes? This is all so much bigger than her. A little pawn in such a big spectacle of destruction. Finding the white horse at the end? I was half expecting to see wrecked tanks (or the FDNY?) in the ruins. Right out of some war movie about the fall of Berlin. What's one person gonna do when the whole world is falling down on fire? GoT goes World War II.

Gunwallace at 8:32PM, May 17, 2019

Oh, and the big switch on Arya's back that turns from kick-ass assassin to scared little girl depending on what the scene calls for. Click! She's a magical face-changing killer. Click! She's a frightened little mouse. Click! She's greater than death. Click! Help me, mommy! Click! I'm going to kill the new queen in the final episode. Click! Or am I?

Gunwallace at 7:05PM, May 17, 2019

Pet peeves: The Lord of Light manipulated things so that the Night King would be killed by Arya. He brought people back to life, arranged things just so, and was the power that saved the people of the world ... and no one will ever speak of him again. There's actual proof the god exists and saved humanity, but let's not talk about it. There's a guy who knows the future (and the past), and no-one asks him about any of it except the one thing the writer's wanted to make a plot point out of. You put your troops BEHIND defenses, not in front of them.

Gunwallace at 6:57PM, May 17, 2019

Yeah, the writers have decided they must have twists because it's a show with twists. But it was also a show with clever, intelligent characters ... who in the last few seasons have all become idiots. Littefinger, Varys, Tyrion; they were all the smartest guys in the room, masters of realpolitik . But then they all expire (or are about to expire) because of stupid, childish mistakes because the writers wanted to have some character deaths/twists. (see next post ...)

MatthewYoung at 6:50PM, May 17, 2019

But it shocked you, didn't it? It was shocking. Shock value is waaaay more important than those crummy ol' carefully woven character arcs.

Banes at 2:58PM, May 17, 2019

Wait...Ned Stark dies???

ShaRose49 at 7:42AM, May 17, 2019

These days, I usually see bad examples of subverting expectations, usually where the writers have a political agenda in mind and care more about that than the story. They set everything up to be great but then ruin it by changing everything, which makes no sense for the characters and it doesn’t fit in with he story’s universe either. Thank you for pointing out this fact that doing something unexpected does not necessarily equal good storytelling

usedbooks at 4:47AM, May 17, 2019

(Previous post wasn't a reply to bravo. Just continuing a thought.)

usedbooks at 4:46AM, May 17, 2019

That might also be subverting expectations. But it's not based on the writer in question. It's based on the audiences experience with other writers/stories and common tropes. Although I haven't seen/read it, I suspect that's what Martin does too.

bravo1102 at 4:45AM, May 17, 2019

Now let's all go back to Banes newspost and praise that guy who does the blurring and extreme movement. :D

bravo1102 at 4:42AM, May 17, 2019

I coined or stole the term "mindfuck" to describe when the mind is blown with a complete overturning of expectations. But not trite ones you can predict. I'm very good at picking those out. But the mindfucks are the ones that leave me stupefied until I trace it back and see how it all came together. If it doesn't it's a worthless stupid twist. But subtlety is the key. You have to be able to look back and realize why it makes sense. Arya killing the Night King was telegraphed when she was training to be an assassin and when she nearly bested Brienne. Smaller is better was foreshadowed in the fight with Mountain. And Dany's attacks on slavery and how she put down the rebellion telegraphed a mad, cruel streak.

usedbooks at 4:41AM, May 17, 2019

Btw, it can go the other way too, like in a Series of Unfortunate Events. The narrator even TELLS you basically that everyone the kids encounter dies. Everyone. And somehow, the audience keeps watching, thinking maybe he didn't mean this one too. Maybe there will be a good ending for someone. As it goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is not the case and you should expect it. Somehow, the nature of the storytelling and characters keeps planting that little seed of hope. The story basically goes as expected, exactly as the narrator says. I still felt a little cheated at the end. I wanted a twist, a turn, a spectacular ending. I didn't expect one. But if the writer had pulled it off and managed to make something pleasant happen in an organic way, it would have been a great and enjoyable story. A writer can be too predictable. A lion? I guess that's how this peripheral good guy will die. Yawn.

bravo1102 at 4:31AM, May 17, 2019

@ozoneocean: I have no respect for my audience. Why they should read anything I do is quite beyond me. ;) I'm the worst critic of what I create let alone what I read. 85% of everything is crap and crap rules. GoT isn't crap. There's actually a deft mixing of character and incident that so closely mimics things that really happened. Tolkien stole from history and myth. G.R.R Martin and the writers of GoT are standing on their shoulders. Then there's Harry Turtledove who's a professor emeritus of Byzantine history. Talk about twists and subversion of expectations. There's a reason complex and subtle things are called Byzantine.

usedbooks at 3:54AM, May 17, 2019

I'd like to add that I love that popular writers do terrible things with stories and characters. These are not the stories I actually like or follow, mind you, but it plants that idea into the public psyche, so the less sadistic writers don't have to work as hard to build up doubt/concern in our stories. Peaple have those possibilities for disaster in their mind even with a writer who reliably brings things around to sunshine.

usedbooks at 3:47AM, May 17, 2019

I agree with oz. Twists can be fun. But if the audience doesn't at least second-guess their expectations, if 0%-10% of people expect the twist, then the writer has failed. If the audience can't go back to a reread/rewatch and see all the signs leading to the twist and think, "Oooooh, it's so obvious. I should have seen it," the writer has failed. But audience expectations also depend on the story. Certain writers have certain styles. Sometimes, you go in expecting a twist, or something supernatural, or a bad guy who turns good rather than getting killed. There's a reason you bought that book or movie ticket or follow that series. If I watch a Jackie Chan film, I don't expect a slow-paced drama where everyone dies. But if people die left and right in a series, it might not be So far against expectations. If that's the rules of your universe, then it can happen but it should be set up as a distinct possibility. (I have no cable or streaming abilit, so I don't know this case specifically)

ozoneocean at 1:26AM, May 17, 2019

You can abuse the good will of your audience too much if you're just subverting and subverting, putting in twists all the time. Stories aren't solitary things that exists for their own sake: they're a contract with an audience. If the writer does not keep up their end then their audience will leave. Good storytelling works WITH an audience, not against it. That doesn't mean constant fluff and sugar sprinkles with warm, happy endings, you don't have to coddle and paper an audience, but neither should you throw buckets of warm shit over them.

bravo1102 at 1:22AM, May 17, 2019

I always try to twist things. If I don't I get disappointed in my story. Always expect the unexpected.

ozoneocean at 1:21AM, May 17, 2019

Subversions are related to twists :)

bravo1102 at 1:20AM, May 17, 2019

The hints were always there. I went into season one knowing Ned was going to die and with that knowledge I saw a great story of evil winning over a far too trusting, even naive honorable man. Ever read about the REAL game of thrones? The Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare's histories? It's in there, except the audience already knew the endings so nothing was subverted. They already knew the twists and turns plots take. It's not plot subversion except to the audience. To the plotters it's the intended path of events.

El Cid at 12:40AM, May 17, 2019

Daenerys Targaryen was always a monster, and Jon Snow was never Jon Snow. I think a lot of the people who've been frustrated by the latest developments in GoT just haven't been following the right storylines; it's actually been very well laid out and honestly I haven't felt like the show has been terribly subversive or unpredictable for many seasons.

Genejoke at 12:13AM, May 17, 2019

The got subversions in season 8 have been well sign posted for the most part, people just haven't wanted to see them. The biggest problem it's had is they've rushed things and that's been happening for a while on the show.

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