Do you have a scene that’s dull, listless, unexciting, or otherwise lacking? Maybe everything is in place but for some reason the scene just isn’t that interesting. Have you ever considered that your scene might be too…predictable?
Believe it or not, this is a problem which afflicts the majority of not-yet-published creative works—the inability to capture the audience’s interest by fulfilling their expectations but doing so in a way they do not expect. Major and minor storytelling elements alike hinge on this very idea, such as plot points, gags, or character reactions, and work by bringing the audience into the story and creating conflict which, as we know, means story.
Although one could write an entire book on this premise, today we will focus on only one specific part of it: defying expectation through character reaction.
If a character reacts to an incident exactly how we expect him/her to there is no surprise and the scene falls flat with predictability, along with stakes, conflict, and the audience’s interest. Now imagine if that same character reacted in the precise opposite way we were expecting. Now that’s interesting! Why? Because now we want to know why the character is reacting differently than our expectations.
Let’s take a white collar worker named Dwight. He is called into the boss’s office. The boss sacks Dwight. Instead of breaking into tears and begging to keep his job, Dwight jumps for joy and celebrates exuberantly, culminating in an awkward bear hug with his stunned ex-boss.
Even in a situation like this the audience’s mind immediately begins to rationalize the seemingly absurd behavior. Often, such a reaction won’t seem absurd at all, but completely reasonable provided the reaction is justified by proper motivation. The scene will then play out the resulting consequences of the character’s surprising reaction and you will be expected to justify it, which may occur within the scene or sometime after.
incident > reaction > consequences > justification
Next time you are watching a movie or reading a book, pay attention to the characters’ reactions to changing circumstances. You will be surprised at the number of times they react in the opposite way a normal person would in the same situation. Also be aware that sometimes characters need to react exactly as they are expected to in order for a story to develop. Action movies are very good at combining both into a reaction that at first seems expected only to follow it with a reversal which reveals the unexpected.
(Consequently, the “opposite-than-expected reaction” has been a common strategy in TV writing for decades. Any episode of the hit series Lost hinges its entire plot on such reactions. For a more on-the-nose example, take a look at any scene in the original 90210 TV series from 1990s.)
Try It Yourself: Turn Your Scene Upside Down
- Take any scene in which one of your characters reacts to a change of circumstance.
- Change the character’s reaction to be the exact opposite of what it was previously, defying normal expectations.
- Explore the consequences of that reaction.
- Justify the reaction through character motivation.
- Ask yourself, “Where can I take my story from here with this new and interesting turn of events?”
And voila! Magic happens.
Try it for yourself and share your results. We’d love to hear about it!