Subverting Expectations vs Wish Fulfilment – Differences in Style #8


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Normally, I do these posts because I’ve read a cool book recently or been writing something related or seen a craft video- not this day! For a change, I was inspired (and challenged) to do this because of my recent TV watching habits. Thanks to the shocker of an ending for Game of Thrones and the contrastingly amazing finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’ve been thinking a lot about how story may (or may not) stick the landing.

So what do I mean by wish fulfilment? Well, in the case of a comedy, this is when characters get exactly what they want/deserve. The baddies are punished, the goodies are rewarded. In a tragedy, the heroes suffer too, but we’re okay with that cos readers are masochists it’s *cathartic*. Basically, if a book does what it says on the tin, chances are it fits into this.

The only rare cases when this fails is in satire or if there’s been an implied twist on the tropes. A good example of this for me was in Shadow and Bone, which I felt held promise as being a fresh take on the fantasy genre, but ended up being conformist. That said, a lot of people loved that very traditional ending, so you can see how that gets subjective pretty fast 😉 There is also the issue of predictability- which I find a lot of readers are forgiving of- even in the thriller genre. What I will say is when this veers off into really dodgy territory is when a choice is made for “fanservice”- where the creator makes a decision purely to please fans- which ultimately backfires spectacularly. I often imagine misguided producers shrieking: “I was doing this to please you! I thought it was what you wanted! LOVE ME!” Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.

Moving on, I think we’ve heard a lot about subverting expectations lately because of Game of Thrones royally screwing up its ending. However, it might surprise non-fans to hear that Game of Thrones actually used to be the *BOMB* at this (back when the show was following GRRM’s books, that is). Spoilers if you plan to watch/read it, the Red Wedding in particular is my favourite example: yes, there was misdirection upto this point, but when you looked back you could see exactly how this was set up and how it was secretly the logical outcome for Robb’s story arc. Sure, it was a shock, because the characters involved didn’t see it coming, but a clever reader could’ve seen the writing on the wall. And yes, plotlines were abandoned because of it, but it not only made logical sense, it left you with an even greater sense of longing for what might have been AND managed to create dramatic consequences for the other players in the story. Essentially, subverting expectations enhanced the story in every way!

Sadly, subverting expectations won’t always work and the final season of Game of Thrones proved this unequivocally. There was very little setup in order for there to be payoff, often plotlines came out of nowhere, and there appeared to be times when the writers pivoted direction mid-story.

D and D we hope to avoid the expected.png

But of course, as George R R Martin says:

george r r martin plan.png

One of the biggest components for this failure is that the building blocks of character and story have to be in place in order for this to work. Sometimes you can get away with this in terms of tone, as with Carry On, indicating through jokes that this is a parody of Harry Potter; sometimes you have write hundreds of thousands of words before you can twist the story on its head. Point is, readers/viewers will be unhappy if a plot thread comes out of nowhere. Plus, there has to be a reason for doing this: humour is a good reason, challenging convention is another, entertaining the viewer also works… to an extent. Because if the audience suspects this is purely for shock value, they’ll ultimately be dissatisfied. Again, it all comes down to delivering that longed for catharsis.

Most of the time, things fall in the messy middle though. Endings that are bittersweet- like the emotionally charged victory of Lord of the Rings– can be equally as satisfying. Even things we think of as classic tragedies, like Romeo and Juliet, play into comedic tropes in order to subvert them (and ultimately ends up conforming to tragic conventions). Narrative arcs will generally allow for characters to rise and fall (in tragedy allowing for a moment of bliss and in comedy giving a time for despair). Very few books “flatline” (a distinct example being City of Dreadful Night– where the narrative remains bleak throughout). For instance, this is a useful source showing the rise and falls in six basic plots. And here’s my (entirely subjective and unscientific) graph of where a story might fall in terms of subverting or fulfilling expectations:

(where tragedies end in death and comedies end in marriage)

subvert expectations graph.png

Whether you entirely agree or disagree with where I’ve placed certain stories, hopefully you can see the difference in endings. And even after we’ve considered all of this, sometimes an ending can deliver for some fans and not others (as is the case with Harry Potter). Chances are there will be dissatisfied parties and I will say that there’s no pleasing everyone- and that’s not a bad thing! Really, there is no one way to stick the landing and we always have to consider that taste plays a part. And I haven’t even covered the difference plotting vs pantsing makes when it comes to endings… that’s a discussion for another time.

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

The Art of Fragmentation – Difference in Style #7

So what are your thoughts on the differences? Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!

26 thoughts on “Subverting Expectations vs Wish Fulfilment – Differences in Style #8

  1. I think subverting expectations needs to be done carefully – because humans are creatures of habit, and most of them want the ending to be what they thought it might be, or at least get close. Since you brought up Harry Potter, I felt Rowling was *excellent* at delivering *both* in the same package. For example, we all knew that Voldermort would one day get a real shot at killing Harry – and that someone would rescue him at the last minute. BUT the fact that, at the climax of the series, it was one of his enemies who swooped in to save him (Narcissa Malfoy by helping Harry fake his death) gave us the ending we all desperately wanted, in a way we weren’t expecting at all. So I feel the best way to do it is to give the readers/viewers what they’re hoping for, but provide some (sensible) twists in the process. Then, like you said, it means more, and we feel satisfied.

    Do writers absolutely have to do what they think their fans want? No. But considering that those of us who make our living (or hope to) from the entertainment industry often won’t do well later if we burn our base/target audience, then it is professional good advice to do so.

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  2. Man…Game of Thrones was one of the biggest disappointments I have ever seen in the history of television. The only thing that came close was the way Dexter ended. But really, you can never satisfy everyone with bringing an end to something. But what I do think is the way this was done: it was incredibly rushed. The funny thing is that some people still don’t get it at times. I hear people saying that people don’t like the fact that Danny became the Mad queen. That’s not it: I have no problem with that. It’s the way she got there that I have a problem with: it was way too rushed, and while there were certainly signs there, she never had hurt an innocent up until that one point.
    Alas though…it’s happened and while we mourn it, there are also people that did like it. It’s the way it will always be I guess. The hardest thing for any medium to pull off, whether it’s book/movie/show etc, is to bring the build up to a satisfying conclusion.
    Oh…where are my manners: great post! 😊


  3. I love Oscar Wilde’s poking fun at those who must always have “wish fulfillment” fiction: “The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” – Miss Prism

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  4. I feel so enlightened after reading this :’) I heard that GoT was stinky at the end, but now I know why! Definitely think you put LOTR, Harry Potter, and Pride & Prejudice in the right area here–probably one of the reasons why I love them so much xx

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  5. I think Harry Potter actually does a fantastic job of subverting expectations, especially when you look at plotlines of the individual books. Nobody expected that Quirrel was the one after the stone, or that Tom Riddle’s Diary was opening the Chamber of Secrets, or that Peter Pettigrew was actually Scabbers. I could go on, because she did it in every book (though was least successful in book 7). But she always sets it up subtly, which is what gives the books such fantastic re-read value. If you know what to look for, the clues are ALL there.

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  6. This is an important topic (at least to us readers/writers), and I can’t wait to go back and read all your Differences in Style posts.

    Love the graph, too. Those are always fun.

    For some reason, this post reminded me of Dorothy Sayers. Her leading man, Lord Peter Whimsey, eventually married Harriet Somebody, a prickly academic whom Whimsey first met when she was accused of murdering her then-lover. Sayers remarked that her female readers were vocal about the fact that Harriet wasn’t good enough for Whimsey, whereas her male readers felt that Whimsey wasn’t good enough for Harriet. I don’t think their romance subverted expectations exactly (or at all), but it sounds like it ticked off the fan base in all the right ways.

    It’s always tricky figuring out how much comeuppance to give your villains (and your heroes, come to that). My heroes tend to blame themselves, so you want to be gentle with them. My villain is clueless. I gave him some comeuppance, but wanted to keep him alive for the sequel … and of course he DID NOT LEARN …

    Great post as always!


  7. I’ve not watched Game of Thrones (yes there are people on the planet who haven’t!) but it strikes me that these kinds of seri s are often victims of their own successes. The producers see they have a hit on their ha da so they want to milk it for all its worth but often fail to understand when it’s time to quit. Thr final series is then often a disappointment.


  8. This is a very insightful post and it beautifully summarises these differences. I don’t think I have anything more to add I agree with you. I especially hate plotlines-out-of-nowhere!


  9. This is such an excellent discussion, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the GOT finale. Thank you for this!


  10. Great post! I do appreciate it when an author (or script writer) manages to subvert expectations in a way that I don’t see coming, but you’re right: there does have to be set-up (even if I don’t see it initially) and it can’t just come out of nowhere. I get so mad when it seems like a writer is trying to do something *just* to fool me. I mean sure, try to trick me, but have another, more important reason for doing it. It’s like with mystery novels: I don’t have to be able to solve the mystery before the big reveal, but I’ll be really unhappy if the reason I didn’t solve the mystery is because the author was playing fast and loose with the evidence. Fool me, but don’t lie to me, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I find it a good evolution that there is a growing degree of mathematization in literary criticism. I fully agree with the article you were referring to about the six basic plots in literature wherein Kurt Vonnegut stated that “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”. It connects with my own research about literary criticism that I’ve called “Synthetic Literary Criticism”. This method is intended to indicate a concrete, positive description of moving equilibria, oscillations, and secular change, by a method which presents all of the interrelated literary quantities in a synthesis of simultaneous, real equations.


  12. This is a thoughtful commentary on subverting expectations vs. wish fulfillment. I agree with what you said about the Red Wedding. It’s fantastic when a work subverts expectations, but the story has to build up to it first and make logical sense. A plot twist can’t come out of nowhere. My favorite books surprise me. That said, a good wish fulfillment that fulfills a reader or writer’s fantasies can be enjoyable. Raymon E. Feist’s Magician duology comes to mind when I think of a wish fulfillment book.


  13. This is such a great post, I totally 1000% agree. The building blocks HAVE to be there. Also, totally going against character is a huge no no for me as well. Unless there’s something motivating the change or heart then it doesn’t make sense. One of my pet peeves is when authors make their characters serve the plot instead of the other way around. The ending of GoT tv is an example of that. Argh!


  14. Very interesting discussion! I can’t comment on GoT which I haven’t watched (yes, I am one of the approximately five people…). I would say though, that my expectations are not entirely based on the ‘genre’ (tragedy / comedy) but also on the style and language of the story. I would have been very disappointed if Gone Girl had ended in a traditional way, the same goes for My Sister, the Serial Killer. But as you say, it is all very subjective.


  15. What a thorough and excellent post. Those two poles sure do create all kinds of tension with fans and if the author/creator doesn’t know where they wanted to head or what the fans think is going to happen, the ending becomes the biggest puzzle of a lifetime! Thank you for sharing this with us! 😀

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  16. When the narrative is heading in one direction, but all the clues upon a rewatch are there, or it is obvious that this was planned from the start is how you should subvert expectations. It’s planned, it’s clever and if someone guesses it, they are clever too. A narrative completely going in one direction, with no other plans and then turning around and laughing at you because you believed where it said it was going is not clever. This is why, although I liked The Last Jedi, the plot revelations RE Rey felt really undeserved. Great post as always, that GRRM quote is on point!


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