Subverting Expectations: How Plot Twists Work (Or Don’t) On ‘Game of Thrones’
After the finale of Game of Thrones, I’ve seen the phrase “subverting expectations” being used as a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for “bad writing.” So let’s talk about plot twists. I’m going to use a few major events from the show as examples, so if you haven’t finished the series, click away now because there will be spoilers.
When you want to surprise readers, or have plot twists, it affects how you write. As the author, your job is to control the flow of information, misdirect, build multiple sets of possibilities, and set expectations. You want the audience to think the story is going one way, then jerk the wheel to the left and drive the plot somewhere else. There are a lot of ways to handle this, and they often stem from the motives of the author.
To list a few styles:
- Type A: The fair play twist. The audience know they are missing information and are looking for clues. This leads to a deep level of engagement, with water cooler talk and vibrant online forums full of fan theories. The audience treats the story as a puzzle and comes up with many solutions. As the story goes on, possible solutions get pruned one at a time. When they find the solution, the audience wants to rewatch/reread to look for all the clues they missed. Westworld Season 1 is a great recent example.
- Type B: The genre subversion. After reading or watching a few stories in a genre, the audience has a pretty good idea of where these things go. The genre subversion throws out the usual rules of the genre to make some kind of statement about it. Protagonists die. The cavalry doesn’t arrive. The bad guys win. Sometimes it leaves the reader thinking, “Wow, they actually went there.”
- Type C: The guarded secret. The writer badly wants to surprise the reader with a twist, so writes in a secretive fashion: unreliable narrators, missing scenes, time skips, and generally making it clear to the audience that information is being withheld. This can cause the audience to give up on theorizing because they know they don’t have the information to make a reasonable guess. It can also leave them feeling manipulated because they were denied the tools to see where the story might go.
- Type D: The WTF. Again, the author badly wants to surprise the reader and guards information so tightly that the audience isn’t even aware that information is being withheld. This leads to the audience shaking their heads and asking, “WTF?” There will often be a faction who will try to explain how the twist works if you read between the lines while making certain assumptions, but at its heart, the writer didn’t lay the groundwork to make the twist feel fair. Other times, the author makes a seemingly random decision simply for the value of a surprise.
- Type E: The non-twist. Characters say what they are going to do, audiences reject that idea and assume that a twist is going to happen, and then it doesn’t. The story can be taken at face value after all. This can be a great way to add tension, false hope, or a creeping sense of doom.
So let’s take a look at some of the major plot twists in Game of Thrones and classify them.
Ned Stark’s Death
This is a classic case of Type B, especially if you read the book before Sean Bean was cast in the role. Ned Stark is the apparent protagonist of the series at that point. He’s advertised as the only honorable noble in Westeros. He’s caught up in the subplot about Robert’s heirs being illegitimate. He has a lot of unfinished story and a major mystery in his backstory (Jon’s mother). Sure, he was sentenced to death, but come on. He’s the hero here. Someone will convince Joffrey to see reason. Maybe he’ll listen to Sansa’s pleas. Maybe Tywin or Cersei will convince him of the strategic importance of not inciting the North to rebel. Maybe Joffrey will want to establish himself as a kind and merciful king.
Lol, no. Joffrey impulsively demands Ned’s head right then and there because he wants to feel like a badass. It’s a genre subversion, plain and simple. Just like Joffrey, George R. R. Martin is sending the message that he follows through on his threats. He’s trying to re-evaluate the tropes. It’s not about how the story usually goes; it’s about how these characters in these situations would act. Joffrey is impulsive, short-sighted, and bloodthirsty. Of course he takes the opportunity to execute a threat to his power. GRRM put a character in an awful situation that would normally call for a heroic escape, then dashed our hopes.
The Red Wedding
This is a little of Type A and a little of Type B. The Type B argument is similar to Ned’s death. Robb Stark had all the elements of being the next hero: he was the son of the previous fake-out protagonist, was charismatic and gifted in war…but he angered a lot of people and was assassinated for his mistake. That’s how it goes sometimes in the real world. As to Type A, there were clues. Dissent had been brewing under Robb, such as the incident with the Karstarks. We saw Roose Bolton’s ambitions (and in the books he’s even creepier). We saw Tywin trying to make deals. We knew very well how spiteful Walder Frey was. GRRM established what kind of story he’s writing with Ned Stark’s death. All those elements mixed together to point toward Robb being assassinated, and while it was shocking because we thought he was safe in that moment, it’s not like no one could have seen his death coming.
Pretty much any character’s death that came from the book fits this profile. They were shocking, but fair. But what about after the show left the books behind?
This one is a Type C. Throughout the episodes leading up to it, there’s this arbitrary-seeming conflict between Arya and Sansa. It was kind of confusing and left the audience scratching their heads, because why are these sisters suddenly conspiring against each other? And then they kill Littlefinger and high-five each other over their awesome ruse. We find out that they were secretly staging a conflict to make Littlefinger drop his guard, and they fooled the audience while they were at it. Why? Because the writers wanted to surprise you.
Jaime Going Back to Cersei
Type E. He broke up with Brienne saying that he’d much prefer to go to King’s Landing and bang his sister some more, despite all indications being that he was over Cersei. The audience assumed it was some trick to keep Brienne safe in the North while he used his relationship with Cersei to get close and assassinate her. But no. There was no twist. He really was still in love with her despite seasons of character growth, and he just wanted to be with her when it all ended.
Mad Queen Dany
This is probably the most controversial classification here because Dany was such a charismatic character that pop culture latched on to. I think it’s a Type C that looks like a Type D and should have been a Type A. Let me explain.
Tyrion summed it up pretty well in the finale. Dany built her reputation on burninating evil men before she turned her wrath on the people of Westeros. She had developed a messiah complex and internalized a belief that her desires == good, and anything that defies her == bad and worthy of dragonfire. We never got that far in the books, but what we have so far shows that she is slowly inching into Targaryen madness. But here’s the thing. The show didn’t portray that very well and tried to patch it with exposition after the fact. They threw in a few hints, such as her growing isolation in the post-battle feast and obviously her reaction to Missandei’s death, but that wasn’t enough to overpower lines like, “I’m not here to be queen of the ashes.” Roasting Tarley and Son in Season 7 should have been where she crossed the line, but the writers let her walk it back. Her turn against Westeros could have been this inevitable tragedy, but instead, her character arc swerved around it only to suddenly back up and run it over. Because of her charisma and apparent status as a protagonist, many people didn’t even see what groundwork had been laid for her heel turn, and so to them it looked like a Type D.
In other words, Mad Queen Dany was almost justified in the show (and I think the book will do a better job of it), but instead the writers wanted to surprise us with a Type C twist instead of a Type A. They hid her motivations and plans so that rather than dreading it and hoping for a twist to redeem her that never comes, we got a surprise slaughter instead. Just an extra ten minutes of content where she was soundly rejected by Westeros or said she planned to make an example of King’s Landing could have transformed this into a solid Type A.
King Bran the Broken
Type D. The Council of Lords elects the man who has been binge-watching all of human history for a few seasons, has renounced his claim to the North already, and has more or less lost interest in modern human affairs to be their new king. Also, his sister declares the North’s independence at the same time, meaning that the King of the Six Kingdoms isn’t even a citizen. No one could have seen that coming and we still don’t understand why it did.
I think that’s enough examples.
It seems to me that some of the complaints about the later seasons of Game of Thrones come from the style of plot twists that D&D prefer. They want to write moments that get people talking, like GRRM did. However, they want the audience to be totally surprised. They want to make sure the audience doesn’t see their twists coming. That leaves them justifying their story either through having other characters explain what happened after the fact, or talking about character motivations outside the text, such as in interviews. In my opinion, an author should mainly rely on Type A, B, and E plot twists. These enhance a story and keep the audience interested even after they’ve experienced it once. They aren’t reading or watching solely to find out what happens, but to understand the context of it all, to watch characters struggle with decisions, and to see what they missed the first time through. The other types leave the audience feeling unsatisfied at best and betrayed at worst. GRRM relied on those three types of twists and that’s what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so engaging. It was when the show went beyond the books that the style of plot twists changed, and the audience satisfaction started to drop.
To writers, I suggest this: plot twists aren’t some prize to be guarded and kept away from readers. They’re a reward for the readers who love the thrill of a treasure hunt, who like guessing and theorizing. Let your readers explore your story on their own terms and remember that your story isn’t diminished if it’s predictable.
Next time, I’ll take a look at another popular franchise and how the writers subverted expectations by giving the audience what they didn’t know they wanted.
This article was originally published on r/Fantasy.