Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unexpectedly Expected

Watching a behind the scenes look at Supernatural the other day, I heard one of the main characters – Jared Padaleki, who plays Sam Winchester – say something I found profound.  He was talking about the way the stories in Supernatural played out, and he said that you have to both give the audience what it wants and surprise them.  I think the way he put it was to “give them something they expect in an unexpected way.”

I thought this was a brilliant insight into storytelling.  Our audience has certain expectations for us, but they don’t want to know the story in advance.  We have to find ways to give them what they’re looking for, but perhaps in a way they didn't see coming.  So how do we go about doing this?

I think the first part, giving them what they want, is decided in broad brush strokes as you plot the generic outline of the story.  Will the hero win in the end?  Who gets the girl?  Will they save the planet?  That sort of thing.  The unexpected part, in my opinion, comes from the details – maybe the group of adventurers find the treasure, but it turns out to have an object that’s much more powerful than they thought, and now they fight over it.  Perhaps they beat the monster threatening the town, but it turns out that the monster was going after someone they didn’t realize, or that they save the wrong guy.

Tips and details such as these help keep the audience on its toes without knocking them over.  Imagine the outcry if Voldemort killed Harry Potter and took over the world of magical Britain.  Or if Grand Admiral Thrawn hadbeaten the New Republic at Bilbringi and killed the Jedi?  Of course what everyone wanted to have happen – Voldemort’s downfall, the defeat of the Empire – occurred, but they occurred in unexpected ways.  Harry Potter was protected from death by the sacrifice of his mother, and his expelliarmus spell rebounded Voldemort’s curse back at the dark wizard.  Thrawn was beaten not by the intrepid actions of the Republic’s fleet, but by the betrayal of one of his personal body guards.  Each of these gave us the payoff we were expecting, but not necessarily in ways we expected.  It was just enough to make you say “whoa!” before nodding about how clever the twist was.

So figure out what your readers want, and then figure out a new way to get there.  They'll thank you.


  1. Supernatural's a great example of giving the audience what they expect, but in unexpected ways. My wife and I spent the whole last season expecting that the missing God would finally appear, and speculating on who would play Him. James Earl Jones? Morgan Freeman?

    So we expected it. But when the character finally was revealed, it was in the most wonderfully unexpected way imaginable.

    1. I liked how they made him different from the concept most people have.

      Another great way of giving what the audience wanted in an unexpected way was the way JK Rowling dealt with Snape. People kinda sorta wanted to root for him, but they didn't know how. His reveal as being in love with Lilly was a great way to drag us back in.