Subverting expectations and suddenly aborting plotlines was a no-go zone for me for a while. The only time I could successfully abort a plotline was in a thought train.

After watching How To Train Your Dragon 3, I wondered what would have happened if the antagonist Grimmel was replaced midway. I came up with the outline of a story where he gets shanked by another antagonist, I codenamed Diavolo (yes, it's a JoJo reference).

Diavolo is a completely different problem. He saved night furies as a species (thought to be near-extinct in the movies, I pulled in the thread to actually have something new to work with) by carving his own path, using his own tools, not letting the law get in the way and if a few thousand people have to die, then so be it. A ruthless, cunning and pragmatic villain.

However, this wasn't an arc abortion, this was a great arc replacement. Compared to Grimmel, Diavolo is a much more interesting foil as he has a similar mindset to Hiccup (the protagonist of the movies), the only difference is that he casually marmelizes anyone who gets in his way and is more successful by doing so. As a good foil, he makes the protagonist question himself.

However, this was only possible thanks to Diavolo being forked from Anon (one of my OCs), who conveniently happened to be a good foil for Hiccup. Such a great substitute arc isn't always available.

I once created a standard D&D setting. In this setting there was an elf. This elf lived happily in the forest village until a green dragon came and killed everyone but the elf.

Following several misadventures the elf finally gets to take revenge on the green dragon.

New chapter.

Suddenly, the elf finds herself in a garden in her destroyed village, except it's perfectly fine, as if nothing has happened. Soon she spots the gardener, the green dragon, "Good morning [elf's name comes here]!" she (the dragon) smiles and waves at the elf with her wings, her eyes barely visible under the shade of the oversized straw hat she's wearing.

What happened? This is the power of [Lain Requiem], Demiurge's (another OC) invincible ability that grants him unlimited power over information, allowing him to create a new world by selectively imprinting and modifying already-existing information on the material plane. Don't rack your brain over it, it's complicated.

This aborts a main character arc forever, quite literally destroys the atmosphere and the world the reader spents some time familliarizing themselves with. That sounds similar to something.

Yes, the Long Night from GoT season 8, the one where Arya kills the NK. That moment nicely ticks all the points above. The reception can best be equated to an online lynching.

I wanted to do an arc abortion to set another plot in motion. Basically, the main characters are trying to stop the the dark lord. In one chapter they prepare for the final battle, in the next, they are woken up by their parents (who are supposed to be dead) because they have to go to school.

Turns out the chemistry teacher is the dark lord but is now humble and polite and has no recollection of the past world. Before @Amadeus bursts an artery, no, the previous world wasn't a dream, but it was wiped from the collective consciousness by Requiem.

The rest of that plot is dedicated to the characters trying to find out who turned their world upside down and try to turn it back. It's not that this storyline can't be interesting, but its tone and atmosphere does a 180° compared to the previous arc.

I don't want to drop every element of an arc (That takes away from the dramatic power of Requiem), of course, only its catharsis.

I'm trying to wrap my head around how can one effectively ruin an arc for dramatic effect (Pretty much what ASOIAF is doing) and to subvert expectations but not end up being hated by the reader for doing so.

  • Man, I need grammarly and several editors. – Mephistopheles Oct 9 '19 at 20:38
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    Your questions are often filled with references to obscure media, which makes them pretty much unintelligible to me... You might want to consider asking your question in such a way that it doesn't rely on so many obscure examples, or on jargon that can only be understood by the handful of folks who share your particular taste in... is it anime? I'm not certain. – Arkenstein XII Oct 9 '19 at 20:54
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    Edited title. I would avoid language like "lynched" in questions--it carries subtext (at least to Americans) that is most likely unwanted. – weakdna Oct 9 '19 at 21:02
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    OP, your extended examples here are of thought-experiments or personal experiences of yours. That's not very helpful as an example, because it isn't actually a shared reference point... As I understand your question, you feel that aborting a major plot-arc midway (perhaps as a kind of shock twist) is something that doesn't work well. But you want to try it anyway? I'm afraid I'm not clear on what your actual question is. – Standback Oct 10 '19 at 10:29
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    I think there's a half-decent question in here but it's buried an an incomprehensible tangle. – motosubatsu Oct 10 '19 at 14:20

how can one effectively ruin an arc for dramatic effect and to subvert expectations

If you want to sell something, you can't. In older fiction, maybe, but in modern fiction, forget it. The MC and antagonist are introduced (or at least referenced) in the first Act, as is the central problem the story will be about, and you can't switch either one out.

It will look like a Deus Ex Machina, it won't get published, it won't be a movie, it sounds like you just want a stunt to try and make the story more interesting. It doesn't make it more interesting, it just makes it confusing, and that makes people put it down. Beginning with agents, publishers, and movie studio readers.

You won't succeed with stunts. You need a character people like that feels compelled to confront a difficult problem, and you have to make THAT interesting. You need obstacles, setbacks brought on by weaknesses, victories brought by skill, character growth and an arc. That is what makes the story interesting, not stunts.

Changing the game in the middle of the story, because it would bore you to continue, means you aren't ready to write a story that long. You are misapplying your imagination and subverting the wrong expectations.

If you want a more ruthless antagonist, write one from the beginning, don't give your hero half a book competing against an incompetent dolt and then suddenly have to beat a genius that makes no mistakes. Give your MC some skill they need to compete against the ruthless antagonist.

And please, don't write an "It was all a DREAM!" ending.

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  • Man, I'm sure you demolished a table or two when watching Cowboy Bebop ;) – Mephistopheles Oct 10 '19 at 17:53
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    @Mephistopheles I don't even know what that means. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '19 at 19:40
  • "It was all a dream" – Mephistopheles Oct 10 '19 at 20:24

At the end of the day, it has to make sense.

You don't go flipped a story around however you like to confused the reader. Your story needs to make sense. For example, Arya killing the Night King made absolutely no sense to me. Not situationaly and not story wise either. The Night King, a core antagonist is going to be done in, by a Girl who has a panic attack sneaking past a library of White Walkers, yet somehow manages to sneak through a clearing, past a encirclement of White Walkers with no warning. It was sudden, unexpected and disappointing.

For a story that made a point of making sure that no character was covered in plot armor, the final season really threw that on its head, and failed to provide any good explanation or reason behind it.

You can make it less shocking by introducing Easter eggs, hints or small inconsistencies in the story. As an example, the first season of West World, Bernard was revealed to actually be a robot. This was built up by having him sometimes disappear. Having him miss obvious details that a normal person would see. Or having him unable to answer questions that he should be able to answer.

Another example would be the Matrix, introducing the idea that you are actually in a simulation and not the real world. Creating mysterious messages and unknown phone calls. While this was done very early in the movie, there was still a build up, to ensure that the transition wasn't going to leave the reader confused and annoyed.

Even once you reveal your great twist, you need to put in some effort to help re-establish your new setting to the reader to ensure you don't just leave them in the dust. That means you have to explain your new setting and address the previous hints you left.

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Gymnastics or diving are good parallels to use to answer your question. The more skilled you are the more intricate and challenging routines you can perform. A skilled story-teller can do whatever they wish with the characters and arcs. You can't please everybody all time. Personally, I associate the predictable structures being discussed with Hallmark and other made for TV movies. I'm not alone in avoiding these productions because I know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen . . . so what's the point in watching?

There's also a commercially inspired fear of confusing the reader or not catering to their expectations. This is also a double-edged sword. I do not believe I'm alone in very quickly discarding something written for the comprehension of a 5th grader.

Again, I'll use movies as an example. Certain movies I can watch while writing emails, texting, posting on Twitter, cooking dinner and talking to my partner. Others, those I enjoy, I sit and pay attention . . . and anybody who wants to talk gets thrown out of the room.

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If you are subverting expectations just to be different, don't. That's how you get disasters like the final season of Game of Thrones. That Arya thing Shadowzee mentioned isn't the only expectation they subverted poorly.

There's two big problems with setting your goal as to subvert expectations.

  1. You're focused too much on meta-goals. Where your work fits in the genre is much less important than whether or not it's good in the first place. If you're too focused on subverting tropes, you will not put enough effort into other aspects of the writing. Maybe characterization takes a dive because characters have to do things they otherwise wouldn't just to subvert some expectation. Maybe there's plot holes that have to be left open because closing them would fulfill expectations. Remember, it doesn't matter how many tropes you subvert if no one reads it.
  2. Not all expectations are bad. Look at the laser hallway in the first Resident Evil movie. They show it off towards the beginning of the movie as an impenetrable security system. Wouldn't it have been disappointing if Alice had just got in some other way? Wouldn't it have been disappointing if that other guy hadn't been sliced apart by it? I mean, that's a great CGI effect, and we easily could've missed out on it if the writers wanted to subvert Chekov's Gun.

In general I think a good way to tell what expectations are OK to subvert is to see if that subversion would add or remove tension. I think it's nearly always good to use a subverted expectation to add tension. Ned Stark's death, Vader being Luke's father, Halo being a weapon that kills everyone not just the Flood are all good subversions because they expand pre-existing plotlines and open up new ones. Bad subversions wrap things up too neatly with no chance of more development, and they do so in a way with little to no buildup.

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