- “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish.” –Terry Southern, screenwriter of Easy Rider
If you defy too many expectations, then you’ll lose the audience entirely. Shocks pile up until they become the new normal, leaving the audience just as bored as they would have been if you had stuck strictly to convention.
I loved Wendy and Lucy, and I admired many things about the follow-up by the same personnel, an alt-Western called Meek’s Cutoff, but it was so reliably iconoclastic that it became predictable. Halfway through, I figured out that the movie was so in love with ambiguity that it could only end one way: cutting off abruptly just before the climactic reveal. The ending that was supposed to be shocking just got an eye-roll.*
Most jokes are composed according to the “rule of threes”, in which a situation is repeated twice, then gets turned on its head the third time. Why three? Because you have to establish a pattern before you can break it. If you want to surprise your audience by defying a genre trope, then you have to first lower their guard by delivering a series of familiar pay-offs.
So the question becomes this: how can you deliver on classical genre tropes without resorting to old clichés? On the one hand, many clichés persist for no good reason, such as, “let’s blackmail a random guy into committing a crime”: it violates common sense and we’ve seen it a million times. Likewise anything involving assassins, nursery-rhyme spouting serial killers, or cool guys who don’t look at explosions…
But other clichés are harder to get rid of: Why is every heist movie about “one last job”? Because otherwise, if this heist doesn’t work, there’s always the next one, so who cares? Why is the hero always unexpectedly forced to work with an ex-spouse? Because it’s a handy shortcut to add emotional complexity to a situation, and turn obstacles into conflicts. Why is it always good cop / bad cop? Because it makes for good character contrast, and it also happens to be true to life.
Not all clichés can be avoided. The trick is to pull off the clichés in new, exciting ways …which is why our job is so hard.
Once you’ve paid off a few expectations, then you’re free to wallop the audience with something that breaks the rules. The more time you spend rolling the rock uphill, the more satisfying it is when you knock it back down.
*John Sayles’s Limbo, on the other hand, pulled off the same ending in a shocking way because Sayles, who has always bounced back and forth between Hollywood movies and naturalistic indie fare, knew how to fulfill just enough thriller