Everybody went into Return of the Jedi rooting for Luke Skywalker to kill Darth Vader. When the moviemakers chose to redeem Vader instead, the audience was happily astonished.
But what if, in addition to that, Luke had turned evil and Yoda had ended up with Leia?
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.
Kelly Reichardt makes super-small-scale independent films. Her first two movies, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, are amazing, but her third, the indie-western Meek’s Cutoff, is so reliably iconoclastic that it became predictable. Halfway through, I figured out the movie is 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 need to first lower their guard by delivering a series of familiar payoffs, something that Meek’s Cutoff wasn’t willing to do.
So the question is, how can you deliver on classical genre tropes without resorting to old clichés? There are many groan-worthy clichés that persist for no good reason, such as “Let’s blackmail a random guy into committing a crime.” This tired story starter violates common sense, and we’ve seen it a million times. The same goes for anything involving world-weary assassins, nursery rhyme-spouting serial killers, or cool guys who don’t look at explosions. But other clichés are harder to get rid of, because it just makes sense to tell a story that way:
- Why is every heist story 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. Cops really are trained to do that.
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 let it come crashing back down.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, he gets laid, but in a very non-bro way: after marrying a grandma.
YES, it fulfills all except one: the male leader dies and a subordinate woman survives and becomes the sole survivor.
YES. Satisfies almost all. She doesn’t realize the boring boy is right for her, but that’s not universal in these movies.
YES. The monster is both defeated and not, but nobody dies.
YES. It works as a straightforward western, a straightforward character comedy, a spoof and a satire.
YES. the villain is killed and the girl is got, but we suspect that the hero will never be satisfied now that he’s seen the dark side.
The Bourne Identity
YES. they reshot the ending to add more action, but kept the hero committed to his newfound pacifism.
YES. Happy wedding, she gets guy, but he doesn’t save the day and the villain is befriended instead of getting comeuppance.
YES. they admit they love each other and kiss…but then he sends her away. They shoot one Nazi…but forgive the other.
YES. The mystery is solved, but the bad guy gets away with it and the femme fatale is exonerated of any wrongdoing before she’s killed.
YES. the mob has a falling out, which is common, but the feds win, which is uncommon.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Comedy and drama come with fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
YES. It majorly defies expectations. We’re totally expecting the lies to come out. But it satisfies a few as well, with heartfelt scenes and laughs.
YES. It satisfies just about all.
YES. The curse is broken and everybody gets what’s coming to them, but the princess both end up unmarried.
YES. everybody is caught, but none of the bad guys are killed, which is why this movie was nominated for best picture: it rises above the base violent urges that usually fuel these genres.
YES. No good guys die (except maybe if you count the victimes buried deep within Georgina and Walter) and evil is totally defeated, so it’s more like an action movie ending than a horror ending.
YES. He gets the girl and finds happiness, but only through not wanting to have sex with her that night.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. They win the big battle but they also make peace. Hiccup wins but he also loses his foot.
In a Lonely Place
NO. it doesn’t satisfy any of them, but that’s the point: this is a feminist film (albeit much less so than the book) that wants us to be aware of and worried about our urges to see violent pay-offs. It works brilliantly.
YES. Villain is defeated, girl is lost (which is common for this genre), but secret identity is rejected, which is shockingly new.
YES. She grows up and moves away, but doesn’t find love.
YES. They get an unlikely happy ending (getting forgiven for the crime), but not as happy as it could have been (if they had gotten to keep the kid)
YES. All are satisfied.
YES. Social progress, great speeches (though the King speeches had to be faked, due to his family’s attempts to sabotage the film)
YES. It satisfies them all: the black guy is killed, the ax murderer is killed by the innocents who live, there is a brief implication at the end that events may re-occur, etc. Nevertheless, many genre-fans are not satisfied with this movie, because of the reluctance to commit to the supernatural element.
YES. He ends up with the girl, but he doesn’t have to change in order to do it.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Bill is caught, but Lecter gets away.
YES. The hero, the rogue and the mentor are all fairly traditional, but the princess is kick-ass, which defied expectations at the time.
YES. our hard-boiled narrator is killed and the murderer is arrested, but it’s all oddly funny.