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The Garden-path

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 14, 2020
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One could say that it is a very trendy thing in writing, be it for movies or for graphic novels, to subvert expectations. Often, unfairly, a plot that subverts expectations is equated with ‘good, quality writing’. Tons of essays and articles have been written to refute this association, including here on the Duck.

So today, I thought it would be fun to explore a rather infrequent but elegant method of subverting expectations: the garden-path.

Originating as the garden-path sentence, the concept of a garden-path plot is to set up a sequence of events that seem to lead towards a specific result, but in the end some fact, action, or piece of information is revealed that completely changes the entire situation, the stakes and the significance of the action that has already been taken.

The challenge of the garden-path is to set up and let unfold the events in such a way that upon cold reading or watching (i.e. without having any hints or spoilers), the audience will logically and reasonably assume that the entire setting is A, and the action is leading towards the result B. However the reveal in the end transforms the entire setting into something else, and now the audience realizes that in reality the setting was C the entire time, not A, and the action has led towards the result D, not B, without having to further explain or clarify anything else in the story.

One of the most classic examples in English literature of such a garden-path narrative in a short story is The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant. (no, I won't spoil it for you if you haven't already read it)

Movies that have used the garden-path well would be The Others and The Sixth Sense.

And I do think that the fact Shyamalan has had such a hard time replicating the effect of the Sixth Sense (especially when it comes to the subversion at all, let alone a garden-path) is indicative of how careful and meticulous one has to be with every scene and every stage of the plot in order to bring it home.

The elegance in this approach is not that anything is hidden from the audience. It's all there to be noticed. But it's presented in such a way, the camera angles are such, the dialogue carefully constructed to be natural but point towards a certain direction, that most of the audience will not see it until you reveal it all.

And that's why the payoff is delicious.

Have you ever used garden-path plots?

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comment

anonymous?

Tantz_Aerine at 3:02PM, March 14, 2020

Hushicho, I don't really like going into the process of comparing such things because it's really like trying to compare two different plot devices. They're not comparable. Either the introduction of elements late with no subversion, or the subversion via garden-path or subversion with a twist are legitimate, viable methods to have in your writing toolkit. All of them and neither of them will work if done poorly. When done well, it's never 'done to death', because it does what it's supposed to and offers entertainment. When not done well, it's DOA and thus, done to death :)

hushicho at 1:53PM, March 14, 2020

It's basically just counting on your audience to logically extrapolate before you get there to surprise them. That's fine, but frankly "subverting expectations" has been done to death, and rarely ever well. There's been a lot of fuss over it, a lot of people throwing it around and tossing in nonsense like "plot armor" and "strong (whatever) character", but few if any actually get it right when they set out to. It's usually far better to give unique touches to the narrative and make it your own, even if it has no twist at all. A poorly-done attempt at a twist can ruin a work. Throwing in something significant near the end should inform subsequent analysis. Films like Argento's Suspiria, for example, or even the film Make The Yuletide Gay have elements introduced late, which enrich future enjoyment of that work. They add something, rather than just saying "SURPRISE! It's not what you thought it was!"

bravo1102 at 4:18AM, March 14, 2020

The Twilight Zone did so many but none better than "Eye of the Beholder". O Henry, Ambrose Bierce, Poe and more recently Robert Bloch all did them with the wonderful twists at the end. You see a story like that and you want Vincent Price or Peter Cushing to be in it. And Rod Serling to narrate.


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