Archive for December 2, 2022


Surprise and Satisfaction

While I’m learning writing lessons from Star Wars, the season finale of Andor got me started thinking about audience/reader satisfaction.

There’s a tricky balance between meeting expectations and being too predictable, giving the audience what they want to have happen but not what they expect to happen. For a hypothetical example, think of the typical heist movie. The crew outlines their elaborate plan for carrying out the heist, then the job is on. But if everything in the plan works and the crew succeeds, it would be boring. If it fails and they get caught, it would be disappointing (unless maybe the twist is that you’re supposed to be cheering for the people trying to catch the thieves). So the crew has to succeed, but not in the expected way. What usually happens is that something in the elaborate plan goes wrong and we get to see the crew improvise to pull off the job by the skin of their teeth. Or else it only looks like things are going wrong and it turns out this is a part of the plan we weren’t privy to, that they knew that person was going to double-cross them and planned for it, so they’re triple-crossing the person who double-crosses them.

Just about all stories hinge on that balance between surprise and expectation. If you give people exactly what they expect, they tend to be somewhat disappointed. If you give them something that’s worse than what they expect (worse in the sense of less interesting — things going worse for the characters may be better for the audience) they’re really disappointed. The ideal is to give them something even better than what they expected. Surprise isn’t always good. I think some writers these days, particularly in TV, place too high a value on surprising the audience, as though that’s the only thing that matters, but if the surprise comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t feel like events were building to that shocking twist, that can still be disappointed. You get rewatch/reread value out of things when you can go back and spot the clues that build toward the conclusion that you might not have noticed before. If there’s no setup at all, you may be surprised, but you’ll also be annoyed. As I said, it’s a delicate balance to get surprise in a satisfying way.

I’ll keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers, but I was thinking about this in the lead-up to the Andor finale because the situation was being set up to be an obvious trap for Our Hero. The bad guys wanted to capture him and thought he would go to this particular event to honor his mother. The good guys wanted to take him out because he knew too much and were also lying in wait for him at this event. I thought it would be funny if he made a wise choice and figured the best way to honor his mother was to do something different and he didn’t show up to walk into the obvious trap while everyone else was there. But I figured that would be a disappointing outcome, since we’ve been looking for that showdown. You don’t want a major clash between most of the forces in the story while your protagonist is off somewhere else, in no real danger. On the other hand, it would also be disappointing if Our Hero walked into an obvious trap and only managed to miraculously escape because of his plot armor. The writers needed to find a way for him to be present at the big confrontation between all the forces without him being a complete idiot. He needed to do something interesting in this scenario and be involved in the big confrontation without getting caught or killed, and in a way that we believe he shouldn’t have been caught or killed (that doesn’t rely on everyone else being idiots in out-of-character ways). Ideally, this should be something that builds from the characters’ personal arcs, so that this outcome feels inevitable, and yet still isn’t entirely predictable.

I won’t say how, but I think they did manage to find something that I considered very satisfying.

As a writer, I often struggle with this because I like coming up with smart plans for the characters and I like them making smart choices — not walking into those obvious traps — but that can make for boring outcomes. I have to remember to let circumstances or other people’s choices mess up those perfect plans so that my heroes can be smart and still struggle. At the same time, you have to play fair and have the things that mess up the plan not come completely out of the blue. The possibility for those problems has to be set up. You can get away with a little more in making things worse for your characters with random coincidences, but you still have to be careful about making even the bad stuff make some kind of sense. You need to come up with challenges that reflect the cosmic lessons the characters are supposed to be learning in this story.

It’s also an issue when readers are anticipating a certain outcome to all the story threads that are being woven together. They’ll be disappointed if the thing they’re looking forward to seeing doesn’t happen, but they’ll also be disappointed if it does happen exactly the way they expected it to. Writers have to think of all the things readers might expect and find ways to throw in surprises. Every so often, you may give a few really clever readers exactly what they anticipated, but it’s only because they’ve solved the puzzle, and you have to really nail the execution for them to still enjoy seeing their predictions turn out to be correct.

I’ve heard the advice to make a list of things that could happen and strike out the first ten or so, since that’s what most people will think of first. Or you could take those things people will think of first and put a twist on them so that they happen, but in a different way. I usually end up changing my planned final confrontation once I get there. It’s still what the story was driving toward, but I try to switch things up a little by changing the setting or who’s involved. If I’ve changed my own plans, maybe the readers won’t see it coming in an obvious way.

And I guess if I’m getting all these deep writing thoughts from watching Star Wars stuff, that means watching Star Wars counts as work, right?