Plot Twists That Defy Genre Expectations
Most of us love a good plot twist. We’re always trying to predict where a narrative is headed, but we’re usually thrilled when it takes an unexpected turn, surprises us, and makes us re-evaluate the assumptions we’ve made about the characters and the story. However, some of these sudden turns knock the wind out of us more than others, because they do more than simply take us in a direction we didn’t expect: they break the “rules”. Not real rules, of course, but imagined, unspoken ones that years of reading fantasy have taught us to trust in.
Twists that play by the rules are still a lot of fun, but the ones that break them and defy our genre expectations can be particularly shocking and memorable. I encounter them rarely, so I can’t say I’ve seen all of them, but here are three examples of ones I’ve personally noticed and enjoyed (without naming the books, to avoid spoilers):
IT WON’T BE ALL RIGHT IN THE END
In fantasy, we expect the struggles of the heroes to pay off. This is a difficult expectation to counter, because so many stories pretend to subvert it and then don’t (i.e. they kill off a key character and then resurrect them, or make it seem all hope is lost until someone swoops in to save the day), so readers often don’t believe the bad state of affairs is permanent. And if you do deprive readers of a happy ending, most won’t thank you for it.
However, there are books (often early books in a series, when there’s still time left for the ultimate happy end) that defy this expectation quite cleverly. One in particular really got me: the characters were struggling to reach a place where they’d be safe from their enemies. They suffered terribly, lost loved ones, were injured, thought they would never make it. All the while they kept talking about holding on to hope – saying that no matter how dire things got, they had to keep going (reminiscent of Sam’s pep talks in Lord of the Rings). It built on all my existing genre expectations: things might be bad, but if the characters just held out, their hope would be warranted.
It wasn’t. They arrived at that ‘safe place’ only to discover they’d walked right into the clutches of the enemy they’d been fleeing. All their struggles had been for nothing. Suffice to say, I was stunned… but also eager to pick up the next book in the series and see if there might still be a light at the end of the tunnel.
TOSSING CAREFULLY LAID PLANS OUT THE WINDOW
If an author spends a lot of time on an important character or sub plot, one that has the clear potential to play a crucial role in future events, we come to believe it will play a crucial role. Most fantasies don’t build up a key character only to prematurely kill them, or weave an intricate sub plot only to cut it short. So if they do either of these things, it can be pretty surprising.
I’ve recently been reading a series where a villain seemed clearly set up to play an important future role in the story. In the narrative, he was supposed to have been killed years ago, but had been kept alive, presumably because he would become important later – this was even bolstered by a soothsayer character suggesting there was a reason for his survival. Then, just when it seemed he was about to stride onto the grander stage of events… he was murdered. Shot dead.
He was an evil man, so I was glad of it, but I was also astonished. The book had so thoroughly led me to believe he would play a grand role – a belief bolstered by my genre expectations – that by killing him, the author forced me to reassess many of the assumptions I’d made about where the story was headed. Maybe that character will be resurrected in future books… but I hope he won’t. I liked how thoroughly his death flew in the face of everything I’d expected.
THWARTING GENDER EXPECTATIONS
As fantasy readers, we can get so used to the traditional epic fantasy beginning (a poor boy of unknown parentage gets swept up into grand events, or a feisty misfit girl gets selected for a special destiny) that we tend to accept it at face value when we encounter it. We’re also used to settling in to read either about a male lead character, or a female lead character (or several of each), and we set up all our expectations accordingly.
That’s why one book (again, unnamed, due to avoiding spoilers) totally threw me when the main character, a boy, suddenly became a girl a third of the way into the novel. She didn’t actually change gender – she had always been a girl – but had simply not realised that she was for various reasons that I’ll also avoid mentioning.
Suddenly not only did the character have to come to terms with the fact he was, in fact, a she, I was suddenly forced to not only recognise, but reject all the gender expectations and associated genre expectations I’d been operating under. Suffice to say, it was one massively surprising twist, and I loved it.
HOW COMMON ARE THESE TWISTS?
Obviously, it’s not easy for a book to defy genre expectations, especially without irritating the reader or making them feel like a pact has been broken. There are also a limited number of times a trick can work – once an author has done it once, the next time it won’t be as surprising (e.g. we now kind of expect George R. R. Martin to kill off important characters), and if many authors do a certain thing, it becomes something everyone’s ready for. Thus, I don’t think these kinds of twists are very common.
However, when they do occur, and are well done, they can be thrilling. They can make us appreciate the author for giving us something entirely unexpected, and taking that turn we truly didn’t see coming… a turn we didn’t even think they were allowed to take.
Have you encountered other kinds of genre-bending twists like this? Share them in the comments!