Six Steps to a Subversive Surprise

A lady says farewell to a knight

Storytellers can’t control the expectations their audience brings to a tale. After consuming countless stories where the male and female lead hook up, people will anticipate similar romances in future works. Unfortunately, defying expectations like these can make the audience feel like the storyteller broke their promises. Luckily, we have a solution for this: the subversive plot twist. Subversions are not only a great way to handle expectations your story won’t fulfill, but they also create a delightful surprise that everyone can enjoy. Follow these steps to pull off a successful subversion.

1. Invoke the Cliche

The first step is to make sure your audience has the expectation you want to subvert. You don’t want anyone to be left out on the joke when it arrives. Audience expectations will come from a very common cliche, trope, or other pattern that appears in stories. It’s important for your story to look like it fits into this pattern. You can do this by increasing its resemblance to other stories with a cliche.

Example One

If you’re planning on killing an important character after a fight with a monster, you are subverting the expectation that heroes will overcome impossible odds. Make sure your doomed hero resembles a typical hero that overcomes great physical challenges. That could be a stoic male hero with buff muscles, an underdog who’s been foretold by a prophecy, or an attractive male love interest saving a damsel.

Example Two

If you want the love interest to reject the main character at the end of the story, you are subverting the expectation that the guy will always get the girl unless she’s a villain or she dies. In this case, you’ll want to choose a type of story where the lovers always hook up. Star-crossed lovers, a fairy tale princess and knight, or two bickering-but-attractive exes will all create a strong expectation that the couple will end up together.

2. Add Novelty

People find cliches boring, and in the beginning they won’t know you have a subversive surprise waiting for them. If you make your story look just like the cliche you’re going to subvert, the audience might abandon it before you get to the good part.

That means you’ll need some novelty to tide them over, a new flavor that doesn’t change the expectation the trope creates. Something about your work must say “this is not a standard love/horror/Christmas story.”

Example One

You’ve decided to make your doomed character a buff and stoic manly man. Instead of using a standard fantasy setting for this character, your story could be science fiction or steampunk. You could make all the characters small animals or have the fights take place in virtual reality. Whatever the choice, don’t attach the novelty to your doomed character, because then it would die when the character does.

Example Two

You’ve decided to make your “lovers” a princess and a knight. To make this story more entertaining, you could change the setting to a Lovecraftian dreamland, or you could make the knight and princess not what they seem. The knight could really be a squire obligated to woo the princess on behalf of his master, and the princess could really be a double agent to protect her highness from assassins.

3. Set Up Your Surprise

Most cliches aren’t realistic; they are expected because of their frequent use. Because of this, subversions need less foreshadowing than regular plot twists. However, providing some context to strengthen your reveal will help it feel more satisfying to your audience.

Example One

You’ve decided to make the fatal fight take place in virtual reality but with gear that kills the player when they lose. In real life, no one would expect any person, even your buff monster-fighter, to live through an encounter with the virtual monster in your story. Killing the character is realistic without setup, but it’s still a good idea to remind the audience of that. Make several trustworthy side characters warn the doomed hero that betting their life on this virtual contest is suicide. The audience will think you’re just using the warnings to raise the tension.

Example Two

You’ve decided to go with a “knight” and “princess” who aren’t really that. To hint to your audience that they aren’t meant to be together, you can show how they become infatuated by the unrealistic persona the other person is presenting rather than by who they genuinely are. Because most romances in stories are unrealistic or unhealthy, the audience won’t look at this critically. You can hide your setup even better by making these interactions funny. People will also assume that you’re just inserting jokes rather than preparing for disaster.

4. Build Up to the Moment of Truth

To give your surprise maximum impact, keep following the cliche for as long as possible. You want to almost satisfy your audience’s expectations before you subvert them. You could even make them think the cliche has been met for a moment before springing your subversion on them.

Dialogue can really bring the scenario to life. One or more characters should have bought into the cliche you established, and their words will reflect that. If they make grand statements about their victory or how love overcomes all, it’ll be that much funnier when they are proven wrong.

Example One

The doomed character faces all of those who think he’s crazy for taking on the deadly monster. He gives an inspiring speech to the onlookers, telling them that victory will never be possible unless they believe it is. Then he proceeds with the fight. Battling the monster is tough, but he makes a daring move that injures the beast. It shudders and collapses, appearing to be dead. Thinking he has triumphed, the hero turns back to the onlookers and begins speaking a message to the story’s big antagonist: we will defeat you.

Example Two

At the story’s climax, the “knight” and the “princess” encounter adversaries that are too big for either of them to fight alone. While they bicker to start with, by the end of the fight they learn to work together, defeating their enemies by combining forces. Just as the fight ends, the princess falls from a tower, and the knight catches her in his arms. They stare into each other’s eyes for a moment.

5. Veer Sharply Away From the Cliche

Finally, the moment has come to show off your subversive twist. This is no time to be timid; your reveal should be sudden and dramatic. Look for actions that are symbolically the opposite of what your audience suspected.

Example One

The monster is still alive, but neither the character nor the audience knows this. The supposed hero is doing his important victory speech when, mid-sentence, the tail of the beast lashes up and takes his virtual head off. Accordingly, the hero’s real-life gaming apparatus immediately executes him and shreds his body to recycle the protein.

Example Two

Instead of kissing, the knight and the princess jump away in disgust. During the fight they each discovered who the other really was, and they’re both angry about being lied to. Arguing back and forth, they list all the unrealistic things they thought about each other that aren’t true at all and describe how the other’s real traits are not what they want in a partner. Then they storm off in opposite directions.

6. Top It Off With Self-Aware Mockery

Subversions work best in stories that are already playful and self-aware. So once your surprise is complete, it’s a great time for your characters to poke fun at each other. This reinforces the idea that the subversion was an intentional break from expectations and makes for some great jokes.

The easiest way to do this is with a discussion between two characters. While optional, having a character that expected the cliche to be carried out can help channel audience disbelief and create a starting point for these conversations.

Example One

One of the characters who warned the hero not to fight the monster cashes in on the huge bet they placed against him. Other characters look on, eyes narrowed, arms crossed. The character who placed the bet says, “What? No one has beaten the monster since it was created. You didn’t put your money on him, did you?”

Example Two

The squire goes back to the knight. The squire has to admit that not only did he fail at wooing on the knight’s behalf, the person he failed to woo wasn’t even the princess. The knight tells him, “Cheer up, it’s not as if you were stupid enough to actually fall for her, ending in a rushed marriage that made you miserable for the rest of your life.”

Don’t be subtle with your subversive twists. The last thing you want is for your audience to scratch their heads over whether your event was a subversion or whether it was just a letdown. Take a stand for your subversive surprise, and make it too obvious to miss.

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  1. SunlessNick

    I’m not so keen on step six as the rest of the article. Stories that “know” they’re stories, or what genre they’re in, almost always annoy me. But I seem to be in the minority there, these days.

    • GeniusLemur

      You’re not alone about the meta stuff, and step six doesn’t strike me as a good step to use either. In my experience, lampshading does far more harm than good (as in, by a factor of at least 1000).

      • Hunter-Wolf

        But no.6 doesn’t have to be explicitly meta or break the 4th wall, yeah in an indirect way it is a wink at the reader telling them “this is intentional” but it can be done without breaking the flow of the story.

        In a modern setting it could make sense to have a genre-savvy character because these types of stories exist in the their world as well, so after the subvetsion when they say something along the lines of “i expected so-amd-so to not happen because this isn’t one of those stories” they aren’t breaking the 4th wall, it works as a believable sentence within the context of the world as well as a wink at the audience, in fantasy worlds fairy tales and prophecies existing within the world itself (and people in the story having expectation regarding them) could serve the same purpose.

        It seems to me that the existance of shoddy and/or rather extreme cases of stories where the characters are genre-savvy or constantly breaking the 4th wall (like Deadpool) and lampshading everything made people a little bit weary of the matter, but it can be done with finesse as much as it could be done in a blunt over-the-top way (which seems to be the most common case today).

        • Cay Reet

          In case of Deadpool, it’s part of the character.

          I remember that the Scream movies did work with that genre-savvy character and then subverted what you expect to happen.

    • Chris Winkle

      Tastes vary. If that’s not the kind of story you’re creating, there’s nothing wrong with leaving #6 out.

  2. Bel

    What do you think is the difference between a subversive surprise and a cheap plot twist?

    For example, in a book the reader is told that a male character is texting and dating someone called Kris. It’s later revealed that Kris is also male. Some people praised it for using our heteronarmativity against us and subverting the common trope of a man cheating with a girl and setting aside questions of girl-on-girl hate, while most objected to the fact that the character’s sexuality was used as a plot twist. So where do you think is the line between subversive and cheap?

  3. Bellis

    I actually disagree that subversions have to be all-out. Simply not doing the trope can work really well, too. (Maybe it’s not called a subversion then?) In that case, it’s important not to set up the trope in question. For example, at the end of the movie Pacific Rim, the “drift compatible” male hero and female hero hug and cheer after their victory – they do not kiss or get together. I super extremely loved this ending! It wasn’t a dramatic subversion and the movie was mostly about giant robots punching giant godzilla-type monsters, not about a (subverted) romance arc, but most similar movies would have made the two kiss at the end, because heteronormativity, I guess?

    • Jeppsson

      I know a lot of people say what you say about Pacific Rim, but… I don’t think it made that much of a difference that there was no actual kiss at the end, because it was still totally played as a romance. Just take that scene where another character calls Mako Mori a b*tch, and Raleigh Beckett steps in to “defend her honour” and punches out the guy. Typical (sexist) romance stuff.

      Also, Mako was super well groomed, slim and delicate-looking, whereas all the men looked big, rough and muscular. Many people in the movie had suffered traumatizing experiences, but only Mako got “damaged” to the point where she couldn’t be trusted to drive a robot since she was a danger to others; she needed Raleigh to step in and “save” her in order to be fully functional as a robot-driver again.

      There is NO WAY anyone would have done the story the same way if the two leads had both been men, or if Mako’s character had been male and Raleigh’s character female.

      Sorry for ranting, I’m not saying fans of the movie should stop loving it. I was just so disappointed in it, since it had been hyped up to me as this very feminist action movie, but all I saw was tired old gender tropes.

      • Bellis

        Oh sure, it could have been even better had the points you make been different! Maybe I was so impressed because I didn’t go in expecting to like it and was positively surprised (plus I’m ace). Either way, not making a big deal out of the subversion wasn’t the problem, as far as I can tell.

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