Wonder and Feeling Clever – alternatives to "subverting expectations"

The modern Hollywood and adjacent story-writing traditions nowadays seem to gravitate upon the idea of "subverting expectations". For various reasons, I find that largely irritating. In this short, I explain why, and offer up the two alternatives in the title as writing goals.

Let's set up the stage here a little. Around the late 2010s to (hopefully) the late 2020s, there is a trend that goes on in the story-writing traditions that currently is the most popular in terms of raw brain-space occupation power. This group of traditions is currently centred upon a fairly large city somewhere in America that most people would clearly identify with "Hollywood", and despite the best efforts of certain other governments in the world, the best that anyone else can do as of time of writing is to appeal only to local tradition, making the Hollywood tradition generally understood to be a global superstratum in linguistics terms.

The trend is largely based on the rapid growth of story-writing material that the participants have amassed for themselves in the few short decades that it has existed (though of course, that in turn borrows and grows from the substratum that is English literature in general, though it is fair to say that the tradition is at least in part "its own thing", but then again given what's left of the English language literature output, it is possible though a little presumptuous to say that it is the only successor to it). It is characterised, primarily, by having a small number of stories that the writers of this tradition tend to all build upon, but they don't do it very well so every so often they have to start over but use many of the same words and concepts so it looks related.

It should be noted however that this is not a new thing, and that in general the number of stories that people in any particular culture tend to be rather small. Certainly less than one thousand, and probably less than one hundred. The number of ideas that you can have with regards to fiction is relatively limited, after all, and we are saved primarily by the fact that we tend to forget things and also that the scale of story-telling at all times prior to 1900 is fairly small.

The problem is that the writer class of this particular tradition has run into the limitations that the current era has gotten into, which is popularly understood as having "run out of ideas" though of course reality is a little bit more complicated than that. Instead of looking for more, however, they are constrained by other tangential constraints to mainly attempt to build upon their own tradition's existing works. With several key factors such as "running out of stories to tell with this set of materials" and "the requirement for things to always be bigger and flashier than before", the users have found a simple solution:

Make invariants not invariants.

This is typically branded as "subverting expectations", which is why it's in the title. All things considered, it is not a bad idea. However, there are grumblings across the grapevine that this is starting to outstay its welcome, that at some point, the number of expectations one can subvert while still being recognisably part of the same world (primarily characterised by individuals that exist within it, not a literal "world" as in the world) will run out, and the result is just a completely different story with the æsthetics of another, which feels inauthentic.

One of the ways that this manifests is termed "darker and grittier". That is to say, one takes a typical story which was originally somewhat simplistic, carefree, whatever, and then inject some kind of realism to it that makes it rough. The idea is that the bright-coloured original is but a facade to some kind of "worse truth", and this is appealing somehow as the audience grows older. This "gritty reboot" pattern, in all honesty, predates the idea of subverting expectations, but I believe that the two are related and one is a natural development of another.

(Sometimes this means that you have to make the original naïve facade up from thin air, which is the spring that all those "haunted toy shop or fast food restaurant" stories all come from.)

One more thing that came out of this is the emphasis on horror and fear as the primary emotions one is encouraged to express as reactions to the output, typically with the further expectation that this generates thrill and excitement which leads to a positive outcome.


Now let's take this article on a greatly more personal turn.

I don't like this.

It's hard to argue that there is not much room for optimism in this storytelling tradition today. If not driven away by simple cynicism, it's just a lot easier to make stuff scary rather than try to elucidate any other idea.

This is also not the fault of anyone in particular, as (at least I believe) it reflects the popular sentiment of the audience of that particular writing tradition. Nor is it something that I endeavour to change, because I've long checked out of this particular tradition a long time ago. For reference, I have not watched a movie in over five years, and not in a cinema for at least twice that.

It is only a little bit irritating, like how some people can't stand equal temperament or auto-tune (or either) in music. In other words, it's the fact that there is a preference problem for something that few think is an option to begin with, mainly because of the way things are set up in the world.


Let's bring this back to a less opinionated direction and back to what I think is an opportunity for something I like more. This is both in the sense of me watching things that I like, and also in the sense of making things that I like – creativity after all is a two-way street.

Part of the impetus in writing this article is to think about inspiring emotions in writing other than fear or excitement. These emotions are, as far as I can tell, mostly brushed aside with the sole exception of humour, which itself is not particularly common but it does show up from time to time.

The particular example I want to bring up is a total reimagining of "SCP", which is one of those internet horror stories (in a literal sense, not in the sense that someone's behaviour in the real world looks like one). The premise, in broad terms, is that there is a whole bunch of really scary things that will break the world, break everyone's brains, or both, and there is this organisation that supposedly keeps it secure to varying degrees of success. Its primary product is a series of half-written articles that look like official reports that basically use the "half-written" aspect to play up the scariness.

But think about how, in other circumstances, the same premise can output a completely different product more resembling a nature documentary. An overwhelmingly British man who the lawyers have studiously advised is not David Attenborough just picks up purported cosmic horrors like they are but a glass of water and describe them in a dry, matter-of-fact tone that gives you more of a sense of wonder than a sense of fear. Which is one of those emotions that seem to be in short supply recently.

(In another circumstance, consider a similar organisation that might exist that looks like SCP but instead just pawns off stray cats and novelty calculators that show the wrong answers as the "cosmic horrors". That's a different kind of emotion, which has actually shown up a few times in popular culture, so that's something that isn't "under-represented" and so isn't really what I'm trying to discuss, but I would like to note that I do like it, so I'm not just some kind of huffy guy that hates everything in the mainstream, say.)

Here's another idea that's a little bit harder to execute, but it's pretty fun nonetheless. Consider some kind of video describing some maths. The excellent 3blue1brown, for instance, makes such videos in which a problem is posed, and then solved, and the viewer is guided to making the conclusion and he feels clever from doing so. This is a thing that I also enjoy, especially if the puzzle is interesting in and of itself and teaches some fun little concept that potentially can be used elsewhere.

So in this case we have a type of plot that motivates people to feel clever (actually being clever is a different, and I think too difficult, task) – make a problem, and then set things up so that the reader is guided to making a conclusion, and that conclusion is correct. It's a field that is a little bit harder to break into and requires a little bit more care but that would be a challenge for prospective writers.

In conclusion, there is a specific lack of things that I like in the literature tradition over in the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I have found others I liked, though, and I think they have ample space for development there, even if not in that particular tradition because it's all kind of stifled there.

🗼 gemini://isoraqathedh.pollux.casa/wonder.gmi