Updated: Jan 19
If you’re a fan of storytelling, or really of any sort of media that involved this type of writing, you’ve probably heard the term “subverting expectations” a lot over the last few years.
If you’re not familiar, “subverting expectations” is a term usually used for story telling and it refers to when a story starts by giving you certain ideas of how it’s gonna go. Creating expectations of how the characters end up and the story will end.
Only to then have the story go in a completely different direction, subverting the reader’s/audience’s expectations of the story.
In theory this should do two things: first, it creates engagement with the reader, as he/she should feel like they have no idea where the story is going to go, and hence, keep reading to know what happens next.
It should also shock and surprise the reader, giving them a surge of emotion and hence, deepen their emotional bond to the story and characters.
However, even though that sounds good in paper, this story-telling technique has been heavily frowned upon by most people who experience it.
I feel like the term exploded in popularity with the release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. A movie that was extremely divisive in the Star Wars community specifically for how it subverted viewers’ expectations.
In the movie, there are tons of plot twist, way more than in any other Star Wars movies before it. However, all of these “twist” completely went against everything that was being set up in the last movie. Contradicting not only previous set-ups, but also drastically changing long-time Star Wars characters like Luke Skywalker.
All of the twist just felt like cop-outs, or a bunch of lazily put together “gotcha” moments. None of them added anything to the story or deepened our understanding of the characters and were just there for the sake of surprising the viewer.
While I don’t necessarily agree with all these previous statements and I could argue against some of them in terms of The Last Jedi. I do think that this case perfectly shows the double edge sword that is “subverting expectations”.
On one hand, it is more than possible of subverting expectations in a way that works. There are tons of examples in fiction, like the “I am your father” plot twist from Empire Strikes Back, or how Winston Smith succumbs to Big Brother in 1984. Both of these are a form of subversion that are usually praised and used as examples of great story-telling.
However, subverting expectations is also a great way to piss someone off. If executed poorly, a subversion can almost feel like an insult to a person’s intelligence. Like the writer is looking down on them, thinking about how stupid they are that they thought that the story was going to go this way.
And that’s not even taking into account the completely underserved shock value of the situation. A bad subversion can make it feel like the writer is just trying to shock the reader for no other reason than to shock him/her. Betraying the story and characters and leaving the reader with a bad taste in their mouth.
For this post, I’ll mainly be talking about the way that the manga Chainsaw Man subverts expectations, though before that, I want to talk about another example of a story that tries to and fails horribly to subvert expectations so we can compare the two and truly understand what makes a good plot twist.
Subverting expectations the wrong way
Before talking about a story that subverts expectations in a well-executed and satisfying way. We first have to look at the complete opposite, a story that completely falls on its head. And let me tell you, if you thought The Last Jedi had dumbass plot twists, then ya’ll ain’t seen shit yet.
I present to you James Patterson novels. Or really any main-stream thriller novel that’s come out in the past half century or so.
These types of books are ones that base their entire stories of the idea of “subverting expectations.”
Heck, the most successful author in the world, James Patterson, bases his entire story-telling philosophy of this.
In a masterclass lesson talking about ending books, James Patterson said:
“Write down every single thing that could happen at the end of the book, no matter how ridiculous. Write down everything that has happened in the book, everything that hasn’t happened in the book, Write it down. And then look through all of them and find the most outrages ending, and that one, the most outrages one, that will be the best ending.” – James Patterson.
Before we keep going, I wanna mention that I fundamentally disagree with almost every single one of James Patterson’s story-telling philosophies, but they do serve as an idea as to what can make (in theory) good subversions.
So, I figured that I would talk about one of his books and see how he “subverts expectations” and whether he pulls them well or not. I also want to analyze James Patterson’s philosophy on story-telling in practice and explain why I think it doesn’t work.
I mainly want to talk about the book “The Quickie” mainly cause it’s one I’m familiar with (I also can’t believe that this is the second time I’m talking about this damn book in this blog.)
If you read my “Judging Books by Their Covers” post, then you already have an idea of how I feel about this story. But, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll go over the main plot of this story.
The story follows this woman called Lauren who doesn’t have the best relationship with her husband. They’ve been on a downward spiral for a while and she suspects that he might be cheating on her.
And so, in order to get back at him, she decides to cheat on him herself with a coworker. The two have a quickie only for the husband to find the two in the middle of the action.
The husband then takes the guy out of the house and presumably kills him.
And then the story mainly revolves around Lauren, trying to stop her husband from getting arrested while also restoring her relationship with her husband.
Now, on paper this sounds like a pretty generic thriller novel, and that’s because it is. There’s nothing in the ways of character in this novel, in fact, all the characters (especially the lead) are just a bunch of assholes with barely any redeeming qualities.
For the whole book I just wanted everyone to get arrested for their horrible un-justifiable actions.
There’s no morals or lessons learned, nor is the world or plot any interesting.
In fact, the only thing that the book has going for it is the constant way it “subverts expectations.”
Every single chapter ends with some form of a plot twist. These range from questionable to laugh out loud hilarious in how ridiculous they are.
The moment I learned that I was in for a ride with this book is a moment close to the beginning. Right after the husband kills Lauren’s lover, she goes over to what she assumes to be the scene of the crime only to be stopped by the police. She almost gets arrested until this happens:
“He was reaching for his cuffs when I opened the door and all but fell out of my car, When I went into my handbag, he changed his mind and went for his Glock instead.
But then I took it out
Took out my badge.” – James Patterson, The Quickie.
And then, as it turns out, Lauren is apparently a police officer.
What? What does any of this have to do with anything? Why the hell is this treated like a plot twist?
At no point in the fifty pages following this reveal was it even remotely foreshadowed that she was a police officer. In fact, the author actually goes through lengths to hide that fact by doing things like: Refusing to say what she does is situations where she should and describing her workplace as an “office”.
This all makes this plot twist feel disingenuous, and that is if you can even consider this a plot twist.
In reality, this adds nothing to the plot or characters and is just there to have an unexpected moment to create superficial engagement.
However, what it actually did was make me confused and even chuckle at the sheer randomness of it all. And when going through this book again for this post, I can’t help but feel like the author is just trying to trick you for no reason.
This is a classic example of subverting expectations in a way that just feels like the author doesn’t know what he’s doing. Like there’s no actual story to tell and the meat of the book consists of a bunch of “gotcha” moments. And “gotcha” moments don’t make a good story, they’re just a great way to both betray the reader and the characters.
And this is the reason why “subverting expectations” gets a bad rep, because of people like James Patterson turn it into a game of how much you can trick the audience.
But there is a way to create subversions that are both shocking and narratively satisfying in ways that you couldn’t imagine. And I’m gonna give an example of that.
Subverting expectations the right way
And now, we finally reach the title of this post. How Chainsaw man subverts expectations the right way.
For those of you who might not be familiar. Chainsaw man is a manga created by Tatsuki Fujimoto that I absolutely love to death.
It’s a story that’s just as much about subverting expectations as it is about telling a very carefully crafted narrative, one where every single element introduced serves some sort of purpose.
The characters are extremely memorable, and the paneling used in the manga is some of the best I’ve ever read.
I could honestly talk about Chainsaw man in its entirety all day, however, for the sake of this post, I’m mainly going to talk about the first major plot twist that happens around twenty or so chapters into the manga. So, if you’re not caught up yet, (which you totally should) this is your spoiler warning.
I’d say that the first of many major plot twists in Chainsaw man begins with two major events, the death of Himeno and the reveal that Makima might not be what she seems (though I’ll only be talking about Himeno’s death.)
But why do these plot twists work so well and why do I consider them to be the ideal way to subvert expectations? Well, in my analysis through the art of subversion, I’ve found three key factors that make a good twist. Those are:
Character, purpose, and sense.
In Chainsaw man, Himeno was a character that got a heavy amount of development over the dozen or so chapters were we get to know her. We visually get an idea of what her past is like, and more importantly, her relationship to Aki.
In fact, she even forms a friendship with main character Denji right after they fulfil their first mission. The two seemed to have formed a pretty close bond, and by all means, it looked like Himeno was going to be a main stay for the series. Which makes her death all the more shocking.
However, unlike the plot twists from The Quickie, her death is used as way more than just shock value.
You get to see a lot of her character, and in the brief moments before her death, you gain a very in depth understanding of what she’s like and what she wants.
For the entire time that we’ve known her, Himeno has been a character that cares about Aki more than anyone else, something that can be seen with how she was willing to sacrifice Denji to let Aki live longer earlier in the story.
She deeply cares about Aki, and in the last few moments before her death, we clearly get to see that.
But what was the purpose of her death? If she had so much character development, wouldn’t it make more sense to keep her alive to give her a bigger role in the story?
Well, in my opinion, Fujimoto actually accomplishes a handful of things with her death. First of all, it gives the character Aki an insane amount of character development, which is then used as foreshadowing for a future plot twist later in the series.
It also shocks the reader in a way that has an actual reason. It shows that none of the characters in Chainsaw man have plot armor, any of them could die at any moment in the series. Even characters with an insane amount of development like Himeno.
It gives each character from then on, this insane feeling of mortality, like each of them truly are in danger at all moments.
Previously in the story, we got a pretty decent idea of how big of a threat the Gun devil is. A massive devil who’s sheer existence for half a minute killed half a million people.
If the gun devil didn’t already feel like a large threat, then seeing Himeno helpless to his supporters only engraves that fear deeper into the reader.
And this isn’t even mentioning how much of a tearjerker the scene actually is. Himeno doesn’t get shot and stays in Aki’s arms while she’s told not to talk as she says her last words. No, she’s evaporated, killed instantly.
It gives the reader a sense of denial, like they can’t believe what just happened. However, it all works well because of my next and most important point.
Going back to James Patterson for a moment, one of his remarks is the importance of foreshadowing your plot twist. However, you can’t foreshadow to much cause then you risk giving it away prematurely.
This is a remark I’ve seen countless times over the years, however, in my opinion, thinking about plot twists this way completely misses the point of what a subversion is supposed to be.
A plot twist is just the next natural occurrence, the natural course of events of the story.
The reader should be able to make sense of a plot twist just by being familiar with the characters and the world of the story.
If the plot twist comes completely out of left field, leaving the reader confused. If it involves information that was purposefully withhold from previous scenes for no other reason than because it would give a way the plot twist. If it adds absolutely nothing to the plot or characters except shock value. The story makes no sense.
And if the story makes no sense, then the reader doesn’t understand the story, they get stumped. They ask: what the fuck? What is the point of this? Why am I reading this shit?
And this is the thing that Chainsaw man manages to do to near perfection, blur the line between a plot twist and a natural occurrence.
Because yes, Himeno’s death is shocking, it feels like it goes against everything that has been previously established.
However, none of it fields like something that isn’t more than possible in the story. We all knew after the first twenty chapters that something like this could happen, that the gun devil could attack at any moment. However, we didn’t expect that it would happen so soon an in such a shocking way.
The reader reads the plot twist and understands the reason for why and how it happened instantly. Not after they finish reading the story after taking a bunch of technicalities into account.
And most importantly, this sense of understanding, purpose, and character makes the story extremely engaging.
And that’s the true difference between James Patterson and Tatsuki Fujimoto. The Quickie tries to trick you, trying to create superficial engagement with shocking out of nowhere revelations that take a while to understand.
While Chainsaw man makes you need to know what happens next. You want to know what happens to these characters, how the effects of the plot twist will impact future events.
And this isn’t even taking into account the beautiful art and paneling. And the way the story is shown to us in a way that increases the engagement tenfold.
It’s a near perfect plot twist that accomplishes everything that a subversion should do and then some. And it further develops the beautifully crafted jigsaw puzzle that is the narrative of Chainsaw man.
I hope you enjoy my deep dive into plot twists and narrative subversions. If you can think of any good (or not so good) subversions from other stories, then make sure to tell me about them in the comments below.
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