Subverting expectation in fiction

Today’s article is about subverting expectation in fiction.subverting expectation in fiction on the writersaurus. Plus subversion and the 3-beat.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, subversion is the act of undermining something, usually an established system or institution. Normally, the term is applied to politics, as in subverting the government. But you can also use subversion in fiction to make your plot, characters, and dialogue more interesting.

Basically, you take an accepted convention or system and flip it on its head.

Subverting expectation in fiction

Many great characters are actually subversions, or at least display some manner of subversion in their personalities. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a nerdy, seemingly-conformist high school chemistry teacher – who begins cooking meth. The title character from *Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the only one who “stands against the demons, vampires, and forces of darkness” – but also worries about boys and clothes and simply passing History class.
Neither of these characters would be as compelling without these dichotomous aspects of their personalities, i.e., if they were simply the meth cook or the slayer. That’s the power of subversion.

Subversion can be applied in other aspects, as well. Consider this piece of dialogue from season 3, episode 16 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doppelgangland. A vampire version of Willow has come over from another dimension and laid the smackdown on Alphonse, a vampire who, believing her to be the regular Willow, attacked her. (Transcript Here).

Alphonse: “There’s been some mistake – we were sent after a human.”

Vamp Willow: “Really? Who do you work for?”

Alphonse: “I’m not telling you a thing.” 

Vamp Willow: Breaks one of Alphonse’s fingers. “Who do you work for?”

Alphonse: “Wilkins. The Mayor.”

Vamp Willow: “Who do you work for?” Bats eyes suggestively.

Alphonse: “You.”

Subverting expectation in fiction using the classic 3-beat, the writersaurus

“Who do you work for?”

The first two times Vamp Willow asks the question, we think she’s simply trying to figure out who the Vampire’s boss is. And maybe that’s part of her intention. But at the end, our expectations are subverted when she asks the question again even after Alphonse has given the expected answer.

This sort of subversion can be played out on the micro-level – as we see here when all three beats are delivered in a matter of seconds – or over the course of the entire story.

Subversion and the 3-beat

It’s possible to deliver a subversion all on its own, especially of the cultural acceptance of the trope that is being subverted is strong enough. However, the most powerful way to deliver a piece of subversion is in a 3-beat.

What is a 3-beat, you ask? Well, the term is a little amorphous. Basically, it means that a particular thing or idea is reinforced at least 3 times.

The basic structure of a 3-beat is as follows:

Beat 1: Establishment – we’re given the baseline for the 3-beat.

“Who do you work for?”

“I’m not telling you a thing.”

Beat 2: Reinforcement – the baseline is shown again to emphasize it and make it stronger.

“Who do you work for?”

“Wilkins. The Mayor.”

Beat 3: Subversion– we subvert the audience’s expectation, by deviating from the established baseline.

Who do you work for?”


It’s worthwhile to note that 3-beats often stretch throughout an entire work – as in another episode of Buffy, The Zeppo, where Xander meets Cordelia three times. The first two times, she tells Xander that he is a dork and uncool and that he is basically useless to his friends. The first two times, Xander gets defensive. The third time, however, he subverts by simply smiling and walking away from her, showing the change and emotional growth he’s undergone throughout the episode.

Sometimes you will see 4- or even 5-beats, especially in longer works. But be aware that it’s possible to reinforce the baseline too much and annoy your readers.

Subversion in the real (fictional) world

So next time you’re watching a movie or reading a book, keep an eye out for instances of subversion. Don’t be surprised if they the parts or characters you find most interesting. 🙂

*A lot of my examples come from Buffy because it’s the show I’m currently watching. Did you know that you can watch it free with your subscription to Amazon Prime? It’s pretty awesome! 

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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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