You know that saying “you have to understand the rules to know when/how to break them?”
While you don’t need a robust understanding of libel laws to call me a jackass online if you so choose (and actually, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t qualify as libel, so feel free, I guess) you should probably understand the conventions of storytelling before trying to defy them. George R.R. Martin doesn’t break every convention in existence. He uses several of them successfully, then turns one around on you when you least expect it, but when it still makes sense within the context of the narrative he has constructed using, in part, stereotypical fantasy tropes.
Jon Snow gets a classic hero’s journey throughout the early seasons. So does Daenarys. That makes it all the more shocking when Rob, who gets a basic fantasy vengeance quest that you assume MUST succeed because they already killed his father, gets brutally murdered. And that betrayal doesn’t come out of nowhere, although it appears to. It’s caused by a series of poor decisions on Rob’s end, all of which are carefully laid out in a well-disguised trail of breadcrumbs that becomes to painfully clear once you’ve recovered from the shock.
If that’s confusing, bear with me for a minute. Let’s try another approach.
Ever hear the phrase “mechanics of storytelling?” That’s because, like any machine, a good story has several different parts, like three acts, character arcs, an inciting incident, a climax, and so on. These pieces connect in a certain order, follow a rhythm, and create a familiar pattern that we all subconsciously recognize and understand on an instinctive level. There’s a common structure to most types of stories, whatever their content.
If you’re really good at what you do, if you really understand the structure of your story, you can bend it a little. Maybe even break it. The red wedding is the utter derailment and destruction of THE main plot line at that particular moment in the story. But GRRM is a phenomenal writer who has other plot lines to fill the gap, and those plot lines continued with that familiar pattern we all know. We might have been surprised, saddened, devastated, but we knew the story was progressing in a logical, straightforward manner.
The takeaway here: Even when he breaks a pattern, a convention, he adheres to others to allow the story to retain its framework.
If breaking patterns is your ONLY pattern, then you’re not creating a cohesive plot with overarching themes and long-term character arcs. You’re characterizing your story by what it isn’t. If you ask someone what kind of food they like and they say “Not Italian,” you’ll probably think they’re not being very helpful, or reasonable, because pasta and pizza are amazing.
So why are we doing this with our writing?
If an architect wants to build a unique building, he doesn’t defy basic principles of construction and design. Why? Well, because the building still has to stand. Sure, nobody’s ever made a 36-story high-rise out of bamboo shoots and gorilla glue, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
And that’s what subversion for subversion’s sake gets you: a flimsy piece of shit that lacks any sort of structural integrity. Constantly yanking the rug out from under your readers with no rhyme or reason doesn’t make you a visionary. It means you’re too lazy to write a nuanced, compelling story with consistent setup and payoff, and the only way to keep your readers “invested” is to constantly trick them by having your characters do things that nobody sees coming because they AREN’T FUCKING LOGICAL.
If I was writing a medieval fantasy story and halfway through, aliens came down, gave the good guys super powerful alien weaponry, and that was how the good guys won, you’d feel pretty cheated right? I hope so. But hey, didn’t I just “subvert your expectations?” After all, nobody saw that coming right?
Because it’s a terrible idea that makes no sense given what the narrative has previously established.
Game of Thrones suffered from this in the later seasons. For example, Arya killing the Night King wasn’t set up whatsoever. Before you bring up Melisandre’s comment about shutting brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes, please remember that the showrunners themselves said they knew since season five that Arya would kill the Night King, which means there was no way that comment was inserted into season three as potential set-up. Or was it as early as season two, even? Either way, that one-off comment was not intentionally thrown in to reference the white walkers, and even if it was, one line of dialogue in eight season does not adequate foreshadowing make. Hell, Arya didn’t even know the Night King and the army of the dead were a real thing until season eight.
So yeah, I felt surprised when she killed him, and also a bit cheated. I’m fine with her killing him on principle, as in, if they had set it up better. But not when Arya and the Night King were never given any sort of history, connection, or conflict.
Bran, Jon Snow, and Daenarys all had much better narrative reasons for taking out Grand Daddy Ice. Hell, even Beric Dondarion, as the Lord of Light’s seven-times-resurrected champion, was a better candidate.
Bran and the Night King have a mystical connection that transcends time itself. There was so much cool potential here. I could write pages on this. How was this not used whatsoever?
Jon Snow was brought back from the dead by the Lord of Light and had fought the Night King since season one. The entire purpose of his character, his core driver, the culmination of his long-term arc, was to lead the living in the fight against the dead. Why, exactly, did he come back, if not to kill the Night King? Or you know, at least play a pivotal role in the battle. He did fuck-all in an episode in which he should have been MVP. His biggest contribution was trying to scream a dragon to death.
Dany and her dragons are the antithesis of the Night King’s magic. Did the showrunners forget that the series upon which the TV adaptation is based is titled “A Song of Ice and Fire?” Considering the Night King whacked Viserion, you’d think she’d do something more than unsuccessfully try to roast him and then park Drogon directly in the middle of a horde of wights and let him almost get eaten alive for literally no fucking reason whatsoever. I’m not mad that her attempt to immolate the Night King didn’t work, I’m mad that she and her dragon(s) contributed basically nothing to the defense of Winterfell. Especially after she singlehandedly annihilates, obliterates, incinerates, TOTALLY FUCKING DESTROYS King’s Landing, how was she so criminally underutilized against the creatures that are the very opposite of her, her dragons, and her bloodline?
And yes, 95% of people were betting on one of those three being the one to end the long night. Because those were the outcomes that made the most sense given previous setup.
But nope, go with Arya because nobody will see it coming. Nevermind that it wasn’t foreshadowed nearly as much or as well. Nevermind that it left a whole bunch of other plot threads dangling in the wind, forever to remain unanswered. Just pick the thing nobody expects and it’s automatically good.
And that leads us to the second part. You shouldn’t subvert expectations that you’ve already laid down in your own narrative. The Red Wedding subverted readers’ expectations because in every other fantasy story, the guy who goes off to avenge the death of a loved one wins. We expected the same thing to happen, despite the fact that in Game of Thrones, every character who thirsts after revenge and/or willingly marches off to war dies. Every single one. So why were we surprised when Rob Stark got killed? Because every other story we’ve read has led us to believe Rob would triumph. However, the events of the red wedding were internally consistent with the universe of Westeros and the themes of GRRM’s writing in general. That’s the true genius of his work.
You can misdirect readers with clever writing, you can blind them to certain things and throw red herrings in their way. That’s how we get fantastic twists. But you shouldn’t undo pages and pages (or years and years) of narrative setup and character development for the sake of a “gotcha!” moment. Don’t weaken your own writing by going back on pre-established rules and concepts within your universe.
What do I mean by this?
Time to rag on The Last Jedi. The movie was a fucking trainwreck. Sure, you’re allowed to like it, just like I’m allowed to like Transformers 3, but that doesn’t make either of them any less objectively terrible. Plot, pacing, character, and dialogue issues aside (“Let’s go, Chrome Dome,” I mean, seriously?) TLJ blatantly disregarded any and all canon before it, as well as committing one of the worst character assassinations of all time. A few brief examples:
Force ghosts can now create lightning that affects the real world. Sure could have used their help in EVERY OTHER BATTLE EVER!
Hyperspeed jumps used as offensive weapons. See above. Even if nobody bothered to weaponize this technology (which is ridiculous, it’s the first thing we do with any technology), this still raises the issue of how there aren’t fatalities when people use this technology for travel purposes since now ships at hyperspeed can crash into things.
Leia being able to survive in outer space with no protection and having dramatically stronger force powers than ever shown before. Seriously, how does she survive the vacuum of space? Does Rian Johnson understand what outer space is?
Luke Skywalker, the eternal optimist who found good in Darth Vader, who tried against all hope to turn him to the light even after he had committed countless atrocities and war crimes, decided to murder his own nephew, his sister’s and best friend’s son, because he thought he had some darkness in him. WHAT?
Luke Skywalker dying because he force ghosted too hard. I can’t even write about how catastrophically stupid this is without shaking my head in disgust. Why not just have him show up and fight for real if he was going to die in the first place? (which I expected, and sort of wanted, as long as he got a decent death). But no, let’s break more preexisting rules for the sake of another “see, gotcha!” moment.
You see what I’m getting at here? None of these fit with any previously established rules. In fact, they break them. It doesn’t matter that nobody saw this stuff coming. That doesn’t make it good. That doesn’t make it visionary. It just means Rian Johnson couldn’t have been bothered to come up with an interesting plot that respected the lore and the characters while advancing the narrative in a cohesive, meaningful, and fulfilling way, so he threw in a bunch of whacky shit nobody would expect (because they were terrible ideas) and pretended like he was better than everyone when they criticized him for it, like they were too infantile to understand his sheer, unparalleled genius. What a fucking chode.
Ok, I’m getting pissed just thinking about it.
Let’s end on a positive note of encouragement here.
There’s a lot of pressure to be great in this industry. We all feel it. I constantly ask if my story is unique enough, my characters interesting enough, my world rich enough. That’s good. That means you care. You should want your story to be the best possible and you should scrutinize it. Harshly. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking you must break any and all rules for your story to be worth reading.
Pick up some classics and some modern best-sellers. Write down every time you notice a familiar theme, convention, or trope. Hopefully looking down that long list shows you that you can do things that have been done before and still have a great story. Find a fresh approach to a tried-and-true gimmick, by all means. But don’t throw three books of character development out the window for a cheap twist. When luxury car manufacturers put out a new model, they don’t reinvent the wheel. They adjust the suspension and put in a better stereo system or… something. Yeah, I don’t know shit about cars.
Back to what I do know.
There are so many things that make a book enjoyable besides crazy twists, such as subtle, poignant themes, satisfying plot point resolutions, and rewarding character development. Don’t rely on one storytelling device to affect your readers.
Or to put it succinctly, as I have so far failed to do in this post:
Subversion is a tool in storytelling, it is not the goal of storytelling.