Subversion can be annoying if done wrong. Subversion can be an exciting way to shake up a plot that is in danger of becoming too predictable if done right. And yes, it is possible to do subversion right. The trick is not to be subversive for the sake of being subversive.
Like any storytelling technique, subversion is a spice. The right amount enhances, too much drowns out everything else. Now that I’ve made you hungry, here’s another point:
Subversion isn’t a dirty word.
Subverting, at its root, means “turning over.” This doesn’t always have to be bad, as in “turning over from something Good, Beautiful, and True, to something Evil, Ugly, and False,” though many evil, ugly liars use it as such. No, subversion can also be used in the sense of “doing something unexpected.”
As tropes are important, adroitly pointed out by Adam Lane Smith, playing with tropes is also a great way to spice up writing. And what is subversion but messing around with audience expectations?
Carson Reeves from Scriptshadow has a really instructive and insightful write-up about when subversion is effective and when it’s annoying. Predictably, he uses a movie I’m quite sick of talking about, The Last Jedi, as an example. But Rian Johnson’s cinematic dung-pile is so stuffed with lessons of what not to do, it’s quite possibly the best case study in bad writing, so here we go.
Never prioritize subversion over character. Luke Skywalker going from awesome, plucky farmboy to badass, self-possessed, optimistic Jedi to cranky, joyless, blue-milk guzzling nihilist is a great example here. As Reeves points out, it’s likely Johnson thought it’d be cool if Luke just chucked his old lightsaber over his shoulder, and built the scene around that without fundamentally understanding the character of Luke Skywalker.
The lesson here is to get into your character’s head and be honest with what he would do in that moment. If you choose to subvert expectations in a way that is inconsistent with that person, the audience won’t buy it.
I remember watching this Netflix movie called Triple Frontier with my father-in-law some months ago. In it, Ben Affleck’s character is the upright, stick-to-the-mission-and-nothing-else hardass the rest of his crew kind of resents but kind of loves. When they discover the huge cache of money, he starts taking more than planned, even though he knows it would weigh down their escape helicopter. Affleck’s character knows this because he was in charge of the tram. But he takes more money than is safe, completely subverting his prior characterization . . . yet it works. Not that this was a great movie, but it did a good job of letting you know that Affleck’s character needed this money to take care of his family! The screenwriters set up this conflict early and showed the tension it added to the character’s life. So when he subverted both audience expectations and those of the other characters, it wasn’t jarring.
Don’t subvert too much. If your story is nothing but non-stop subversion, the subversion is both expected, and the audience becomes aware of the writer. I like how Reeves puts it:
A subverted expectation is a heightened moment that draws attention to itself. Do it over and over and the audience starts thinking about the person doing it rather than the characters experiencing it, which breaks the suspension of disbelief.
Bingo. That’s why we’re all still talking about how bad a job Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi more than the movie itself.
Reeves calls subversion a “dance,” but I used the cooking analogy. You need the audience to trust you in order for them to feel comfortable as you play around with what they expect to happen. Think of composers like Mozart and Bach and Beethoven: Those guys knew the rules of music inside and out. That’s why they were able to mess around with them to such great effect. Otherwise, they’re just creating vaguely musical fart sounds.
Subversion should further the story. Reeves mentions how Johnson decided to kill The Last Jedi‘s big bad Snoke (what a dumb name!) in the middle of the movie. This left him “stranded on an island” story wise. Was it shocking and unexpected? Yes. Did it work? No. Why? Because this stupidly named character set up to be the main villain of the series was destroyed in an insulting, almost off-hand way, and all tension evaporated. The stakes were lowered. The shift was jarring. God, what an awful movie.
Reeves’s last point is really a restatement of his first, that subversions should feel organic to your audience and aren’t there just for the sake of subversion. Characters need to act in a consistent manner, and out-of-character actions need to be set up in advance for them to work. Otherwise you end up with a confusing mess that will leave audiences bewildered and unsatisfied.
Think about it: in life, predictability makes things work. You want the trains running on time, the airplanes to stay in the sky, the traffic lights to work, the contracts to be honored and enforced . . . but in some aspects of your life, you want to be surprised.
Stories are kind of like that. Predictability–within reason–keeps things from being jumbled and chaotic. But sometimes, a little chaos can go a long way.
As long as it doesn’t get completely out of hand.
I like to think of subversion like this. Remember, subversion doesn’t have to be ugly or brutal or bleak or nihilistic. But it can be interesting.
Long story short: if it serves the story, it’s awesome.
My book A Traitor to Dreams will subvert your expectations in a way . . . like many readers said, it wasn’t what they expected and they were pleasantly surprised! Check it out for yourself.
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