“Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who?”
“Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.”
“You mean he wins? Jesus, grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?”
– The Princess Bride
One thing Game of Thrones (GoT) does better than any other story today is subvert your expectations. This is the secret sauce that makes it one of the most popular and pirated shows of all time.
You can learn almost everything you want to learn about masterful storytelling by watching Game of Thrones or reading Song of Ice and Fire. With most stories, you’re lucky if you one or two things to add to your writer’s arsenal. Most novels or films have but a single plot. Game of Thrones contain every single plot we have ever come up with, whether you think that there are only 7 basic plots, 20 master plots, or some other number. It does all that while including almost every major personality on the planet, from psychopath to noble hero and everything in between, enough to cover the entire range of personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV).
And it does this all with the equivalent of an R rating. Deadpool aside, the fact is, most R Rated stories have a limited reach. The other great fantasy epics of our time, Star Wars and Harry Potter, are both very much PG, with childlike, black and white morality.
So what is subverting expectations and why is it essential? It’s the key to “adding the twist” that all the writing books tell you about but never explain. What does “add a twist” really mean anyway? How would you recognize it? How do you deploy it in your own fiction?
I never found an answer that satisfied me so I figured it out myself. Eventually writers have to put down writing books and study stories with their own eyes. I’ve come to believe that fresh writing comes from subverting expectations. An audience believes something will happen, like the good guy will dangle by his fingers from the rooftop, all while fending off kicks from the bad guy, but still find a way to pull himself up.
But what if the good guy falls instead?
Now we have a crippled detective. That’s a new twist right there. Well it was when “Rear Window” came out anyway. You’ll have to come up with your own. Oh and it happened in the first two minutes of the movie. From the opening sequence you know the movie is playing on a different level. This is the type of surprise audiences crave.
Subverting expectations touches all aspects of story telling from plot, to character development to basic story mechanics. Let’s take a look at some examples in GoT and other works so you understand what I’m talking about here.
In order to understand how to subvert expectations you need to know what those expectations are in the first place. To do that you’ll want to study tropes. Check out the Tvtropes website (it’s about tropes in general not just for TV) where you can read through every trope ever invented. So what are they? They’re techniques that writers use to make stories go. The drive character behavior and plot. For example, there are tropes that shape how we feel about characters. A villain might “kick the dog” aka act cruelly towards an innocent animal or a beloved pet. This immediately lets the audience know that it’s OK to hate this character going forward, even to root for his death because most normal folks don’t treat their animals badly and despise anyone who does. It’s an economical way to signal that a character is not someone you want hanging around. That is the power of tropes. In a single scene you know who the villain is and you’re already rooting for him to face justice.
One warning before we go forward. Some people hate tropes. They feel that they ruin stories or that they’re the foundation of shitty storytelling. In fact, you can’t escape tropes. Every single of one of the stories you love and hate is filled with them, whether the author knows about them consciously or not. As a writer, learning about tropes is a little like learning how a magician does his tricks. Audiences and even some authors don’t want to see what goes on behind the curtain. Seeing how a trick is done ruins the magic of it but as an author I find tropes addictive. I want to know how to do all the tricks. And if you want a be a magician you should too. Tropes are the engines the make stories run. Game of Thrones is such a massive story that it has several hundred tropes threaded through it, when most great stories might have twenty or thirty. You actually have to click “expand all folders” to see them all. So let’s take one trope that this story plays with extremely well: “beauty equals goodness.”
“Beauty equals goodness” is one of the oldest story mechanics in history. It’s safe to say that most of the heroes you’ve ever loved have been pretty damn good looking. This is no by mistake. The dashing male hero probably met a girl who just happens to look stunning as well and who naturally winds up as his love interest, or vice versa if the hero is female. Often times the good looking hero will battle someone ugly, aka the antagonist. Turn on WB for five minutes and pick any show. You’ll find all the people on it are attractive except the bad guys.
Some movies take this idea to absurdity, like the film Braveheart. For me, this film has not aged well. It’s hard to believe it won Best Picture. Then again, I remember first seeing it and feeling totally pumped up emotionally so maybe it did its job. In Braveheart we have a good-looking hero, who meets a fantastically beautiful French queen, and they battle ugly British lords and a conniving villain whose face is rotting away. Or think of any James Bond flick, even the good ones like the wonderful Skyfall. Bond is daring, handsome and always gets the girl. In Skyfall he fights a man whose face is literally deformed, so much so that his teeth have rotted completely away and he can take them out. In other words, stories use the very convenient psychological effect of physical beauty or lack thereof to make you feel good about one character and recoil at another.
Game of Thrones subverts this trope to great effect. There are obvious examples, like the Imp, a character who is a dwarf, yet who is also the most intelligent and crafty character in the universe. The books go further than the series, making him deformed as well. The townspeople in King’s Landing think the Imp is responsible for various atrocities because of how he looks, aka a little medieval racial profiling, all while giving the good looking King Joffery a pass. Speaking of Joffery, Sansa is prone to seeing the world with the filter of “beauty equals good.” In the early days, she believes that Joffery can’t possibly be a bastard son because he’s so attractive Of course, when the mad boy king cuts off her father’s head, she is badly disabused of this childish notion.
Other characters that are good looking like the boy king, Rob Stark, and his father, a classic fantasy protagonist with long hair and high minded moral righteousness, both get brutally killed. So many people are surprised by the death of Rob Stark because they figured him to be the real savior of the series by virtue of his boyish good looks and charm. Of course, GoT is not just black and white in how it toys with audience expectations. We also find ambiguous characters, like the Hound an ostensibly evil character, who is physically deformed, with a face badly burnt by his brother, but who also displays heroic traits such as a protectiveness of the people closest to him like Arya.
At the same time, Thrones uses this same trope in its traditional manner. For instance, Daenerys, the “Mother of Dragons” and the story’s most essential hero is incredibly beautiful, to the point that many of her enemies are disarmed by it and come to her aid. For instance, Ser Jorah was sent to kill her, as were the marauders at the gate of the second slave city she raids. One of the leaders is so taken by her beauty that he kills the two other leaders and presents their heads to her, rather than assassinate her. This shows that it is not necessary or even desirable to subvert expectations across the board. Many less complicated stories than Game of Thrones only need to subvert a few expectations to be a hit with audiences and make them feel like they’re seeing something they’ve never seen before.
It’s not hard to think of other great stories that play with “beauty equals goodness” brilliantly. Shrek made a franchise out of subverting this one trope. It’s the single most important twist in the story, which just goes to show that subverting one major expectation can go a long way to making something “fresh” and exciting for viewers. The same is true of Kung Fu Panda. Panda is surrounded by classic kung fu students, a Tiger, a Snake, but none of them are the chosen one. Instead it is the fat, out of shape Panda who thinks differently and winds up as the true hero in the end.
So how do you know when and when not to subvert something in a story? I can tell you that many amateur and novice writers pick the wrong story elements. They think they’re adding a twist, when they’re just breaking their story. Certain story elements are so essential that they can’t be changed. For example, stories at their most basic level have to have conflict. The hero and protagonist have to battle it out in the end, whether that is physically, like in an action movie, or mentally, like in a court-room drama. Having someone else defeat that bad guy is not a twist, it’s just bad writing. I’m looking at you “The Fan“, to this day DeNiro’s worst flick. In “The Fan” the hero is fighting the bad guy and some random cop comes out of the crowd and kills the villain. What a horrible and unsatisfying ending. We are robbed of seeing justice delivered by the character we care about most in the film.
In other words, don’t try to change the crucial storytelling points unless you’re an absolute master and you happen to recognize a way to do it that everyone else missed.
Let’s take a look at another example of a trope that you probably don’t want to break, unless you’re telling a comedic story, “underestimating badassery” or as I like to call it “you picked the wrong guy to fuck with.” You know this one well. The hero is a tough guy, who doesn’t look like a tough guy. Maybe he is a humble old man, like Ip Man, or a green guy hanging out in a forest, who’s got height challenges, aka Yoda. Some young punks or arrogant bad guys come along and they’re going to teach this old man/short green guy a lesson. Uh oh, you think, these punks are going to get it. And they do. This is awesome and you don’t want to mess with this awesomeness. You just want to go with it.
This trope delivers such an audience satisfying boost that it’s not worth subverting, unless you’re trying to make people laugh. What’s the opposite of this? The hero isn’t a badass and he gets a beat down from the bullies? This won’t make your story fresh it will just make audiences hate you, if it’s not a comedy. I bet you can think of a hundred examples of this story device. Think of every kung-fu movie you’ve ever seen where the humble monk is just walking along, minding his own business and some thugs threaten him. We love for the bully to get their ass kicked, because we all remember getting our own butts beat at least once as a kid. Just admit it. It happened, whether it was mental or physical. Somewhere, someone made fun of you and everyone laughed, no matter where you were on the popularity chain. Nobody wants to relive that. So don’t make them.
One example of a story that does get away with changing some of the most crucial aspects of storytelling is “The Princess Bride”. The movie is self-reverential, in that a grandpa is telling the movie’s main story to his grandson. This is called a framing narrative. That allows writers to comment openly on the story and pull some other neat tricks. The bad guy does not die in this story, which is a rarity in action films. Look at how the kid in the framing narrative reacts to that, as noted in my opening quote? He’s a stand in for the audience and their expectations that just got smashed on the rocks. He feels cheated. He doesn’t even want to hear the rest of the story. Of course, once grandpa actually threatens to take his book and go home, the kid relents. He wants to know how it turns out and we do too. The movie gets away with this because it manages to slip in a real truth about life. Sometimes living with yourself is worse than death.
Voice over is another great opportunity for subverting expectations. There are certain expectations an audience has about the voiceover, such as the narrator is reliable, or that they’re alive. Several famous serial killer stories, such as American Psycho, start off in the head of someone seemingly normal, only to begin to show they’re anything but normal. The movie Sunset Boulevard has a dead narrator. Right away you want to know what happened to him. That’s exciting.
Speaking of framing narratives, take the Usual Suspects. This movie subverts the expectation that the people in the framing narrative are reliable. We expect them to be telling the truth, even if they’re criminals. It’s like when Batman breaks the bad guy and the baddie tells us his whole plan. We expect the truth. But Kevin Spacey’s character makes up the whole story from story prompts he sees in the cop’s office. None of it is true, or all of it is true. We’ll never know.
Those are just a few examples of how great stories subvert expectations. Now it’s your turn to go out and find your own. Start with the stories that you like and take a closer look at them. What did they do differently that you might not have understood before now?