There’s been a lot of talk lately about “subverting expectations” in storytelling, due to the recent ending of Game of Thrones. So, since I’m a storyteller, let’s take a bit of an aside to discuss it.
Much of the praise that George R. R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire received was about how it didn’t play it safe. It “subverted” the old fantasy tropes (which, admittedly, had been largely done to death by Tolkien copycats who didn’t understand Tolkien). Unexpected things happened. The good guys didn’t win just because they were the good guys. (It was sometimes hard to tell who the good guys were.)
Now, some of this was simply marketing. To listen to some people, you’d think that George Martin invented moral shades of gray in fantasy fiction. David Gemmell, Glen Cook, and a host of others beat him to it by decades.
Full disclosure: I read the first three books, the year that the TV show started. I quit after A Storm of Swords. And a great deal of that decision was based on the nature of this “subverting expectations” model of storytelling.
If a storyteller sets out, not to tell a story, but simply to be unexpected, there are going to be weaknesses in the story told. Because the story isn’t the main thing. The shock value of “subverting expectations” is. And that’s what Martin appeared to be going for: shock value.
It is true that in real life, unexpected deaths happen, and the good guys don’t always win. However, that has to happen organically. It doesn’t in Martin’s writing (and even less so in the TV show, from what I’m hearing).
“But it does! Characters pay the price for their bad decisions!” Except when they don’t; violating the rules of hospitality in a preindustrial culture doesn’t tend to go over well; just look at the old Arab story about a man who abused his host and his family, only to be treated well up until he was back out in the desert. Only then did revenge find him. The Red Wedding had no immediate consequences for those who murdered the guests under their roof.
This brings me to the root problem of this model of storytelling. Many readers’ expectations are based on a general knowledge of human behavior and cause and effect. You might still be able to spring surprises on your reader; in fact, you should try to. But they have to make sense within the internal logic of the story. If they are either contrary to the internal logic, or the internal logic doesn’t make sense, then you’ve failed as a storyteller.
With A Song of Ice and Fire, and Game of Thrones, you have examples of both.
Martin’s internal logic fails because he dismisses an entire segment of human nature and human experience. The thing that I noticed as I read the books, and Larry Correia has pointed out elsewhere, is that he writes two kinds of people: thugs and victims. There is no in-between. There are no heroes. Anyone who tries to act like a hero ultimately fails because of naivete.
This is thinking that’s about as deep as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs:
If your story requires mind-numbing idiocy on the part of major characters to advance the plot, you’ve lost the plot. If it requires it simply to subvert the reader’s expectations, then not only didn’t you ever have a plot beyond “gotcha,” you’re actively insulting your readers’ intelligence along the way.
Now, from what I’ve been hearing about the final season of Game of Thrones, that falls into the latter category, namely violating internal logic.
For a story to be compelling, it has to have some kind of grounding. Characters have to act enough like real people for the reader to be convinced that they could be. This means that their reactions and mindsets have to be consistent with their character and what has happened to them during the story. Having someone do something completely out of established character, just because people won’t expect it, isn’t storytelling. It’s the same “gotcha” tricks as above, only lazier and even more blatant. It’s not storytelling, it’s playing a trick on the reader and then patting oneself on the back for one’s own cleverness.