Subverting Expectations

I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine about what exactly it was that made my favorite stories my favorite stories. Several ideas were thrown out. Character development. Emotional attachment. Good story. You know, all the buzzwords that people throw into a review but don’t really know what they mean (heh, shots fired).

But besides those rather nebulous terms that mean little by themselves, I recall talking about one concept that, ironically, caught me a bit off guard: the subversion of expectations.

So what do I mean by this phrase? In this case, subverting someone’s expectations roughly equates to the idea of catching someone off guard at the fundamental level. Western pop culture’s famous stories are rife with examples subversion, from Game of Thrones‘ frequent killing of main characters, to The Matrix‘s famous awakening scene, to even The Neverending Story‘s unexpected incorporation of a small boy reading a fantasy book into the fantasy book’s very plot.

Below I’ve listed just a few of my favorite stories that list among my favorites because all of them exemplify superb execution of this subversion (I’ve done my best to summarize what makes each superb without spoiling that very concept, though even knowing the basic idea of what each story attempt to do may be spoiler enough to encourage you to skip below the following images).

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Clannad: Going beyond the classic anime high school graduation

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Little Busters and Rewrite: Utilizing the unique elements of visual novel storytelling into the story itself

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Ever17: Incorporating the reader into the story in an unprecedented way

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Utawarerumono: Exploiting established tropes to pave the way for a dramatic twist

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Air: Expanding the scope of what timeframe a visual novel should cover and exploring spiritual themes simultaneously

As a brief aside, you’ll probably notice that every single one of these entries began its life as a visual novel, which either speaks to the great potential of the medium, or to my hopeless bias toward it. If you’d like to learn more about visual novels, check out our recommendations page!

Anyways, what’s amazing about the story of Jesus Christ, and perhaps something that continues to attract me to His story, is yet again another example of the perfect subversion of expectations. See, the difference in storytelling between a reader in feeling a sense of frustration rather than the optimal sense of pleasant surprise in subversion lies in the buildup and execution.

In each of the above-mentioned pieces, enough subtle information is provided throughout the story to allow the reader to grasp what amazing piece of narrative is going to come later (though Ever17 and Utawarerumono are likely the weakest in this area of all mentioned). Yes despite this, the reader is not likely to realize this until the event happens. It may take some serious thinking, and possibly even some rereading, but eventually the reader reaches the point of realization at which everything simply clicks. “I get it! [That] was happening all along! I can’t believe I missed it!”

In the same way, scholars have been studying the story of Jesus as it is presented in the Bible for thousands of years. And thanks to the compiled works that resulted in the Bible, in addition to piles of extrabiblical texts like commentaries, we can have that “click” moment as well. “Wow, so Jesus really was coming the entire time! When I started reading, I can’t say I expected it, but in hindsight He truly is the culmination of everything foreseen!”

And hence the expectations of thousands, now millions and billions, were subverted.

5 thoughts on “Subverting Expectations

  1. The other side of the Lord subverting our expectations is simply this – we deserve far worse than He gives us. He is patient, kind, and forgiving despite the fact that each of us at one point were enemies of God. That is radically different than the way we as people react to everyday annoyances, let alone to people who fundamentally insult our very being.

    Christian rapper Andy Mineo in the track One Sixteen said, “When you hear the story about the hero dying for the villain…” Our expectation is for the hero to defeat the villain. But, in our story, God’s story, He chose to die for us – the villain. That is not what I would have written. Not how I would have expected it to go…and yet, here we are…

  2. “(Jesus) Who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)

    The all-powerful, all-mighty, and infinite God decided to lower himself to human stature for our sakes. There is irony in this statement itself, but I’m so glad that there is because if everything we did was judged fairly by Him, we would all be in Hell, separated from God. Definitely the greatest subvert of expectations!

  3. Great observation! I’ve always thought the most brilliant bit of the whole Biblical narrative is the way the Israelites’ expectations of their Messiah were subverted; how He came exactly as promised, but the scale and nature of His mission were beyond what anyone at the time could even imagine.

    I’m curious whether you think there’s a qualitative difference between “positive” and “negative” subversions in fiction – between unexpected turns for the worse and turns for the better. The Gospel narrative certainly presents us with a turn for the better (a eucatastrophe, to use Tolkien’s term), and stories like that are useful in nourishing our theological imaginations. But some of my favorite stories – like Madoka Magica and Revolutionary Girl Utena, to name a couple of anime examples – are powerful and satisfying precisely because they build up positive expectations and then subvert them in a dark, unpleasant, thought-provoking manner. I like to think there’s room in the Christian world-picture for both types of subversions, since they both help us to consider reality more carefully, albeit in different ways.

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