Subverting Expectations

Something major people have to deal with in writing is people’s expectations. If you’re good at managing people’s expectations, it can make the difference between having a novel idea and being cookie-cutter. And you, of course, don’t want to be called cookie-cutter unless you’re really, really good at writing cookie-cutter stories, like a certain manga I’ve brought up previously. It could well be the difference between having an Oreimo (short for “My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute“) and an Ochinko (short for “I Don’t Like You At All, Big Brother!!“) on your hands.

Both look like they have similar premises, if you go off the title, but this is actually a perfect example of what I mean. Both titles make you think the work is incest pandering, right? Well, actually, one of those isn’t. In fact, aside from being about siblings, neither one touches upon that more than off-hand and they have nothing to do with each other aside from having catchy opening themes for their anime adaptations, featuring two siblings, and having at least one porn addict in the main cast each. I’ll briefly explain both so you can make sense of what I’m saying:

  • Oreimo follows two siblings who’ve grown apart with age – a brother and his little sister. The brother, Kyousuke, is fairly ordinary, but his sister, Kirino, is a model, an A student, and the star runner for her school’s track team. One day, she approaches him for the first time in years to ask for help, since she’s addicted to her Imouto Otaku lifestyle that she’s been keeping hidden from everyone (that basically means that she’s a nerd when it comes to media about little sisters, including porn). Kyousuke spends the rest of the series basically ruining his reputation so Kirino can save face, while helping improve her conditions at home. This includes finding her some friends who are into such things, as well as a touching scene where he makes his father accept it as part of her (minus the porn – he essentially has to tell his father that he was watching porn about little sisters on his little sister’s laptop in his little sister’s room, and you can imagine how that turned out).
  • Ochinko is about two siblings, also a boy and his little sister, but in this case the little sister is trying to tempt him into succumbing to the temptation of doing that which is taboo – laying his hands on his sister – simply because it is taboo. Then, one day, she finds out that she’s adopted. She essentially uses this as a free pass to continue what she’s been doing. Oh, and the older brother is addicted to porn, which he basically spends time on at all times when not at home to evade reality.

Which do you think is the quality work out of those two? One did exactly what the title implied, the other went a completely different route. There’s a reason why Oreimo‘s anime adaptation sold over 10000 copies (that’s considered an extreme success for anime – they made their money back about 4 times over) while Ochinko lies in mediocrity. One actually had something deeper, the other was just trash.

There’s a reason why people eyeroll when they see a ridiculously generic story, which Ochinko sadly is. They’ve seen all of that stuff before, so it’s generally boring unless re-arranged in an interesting way or executed as perfectly as Nisekoi does with its very simple love story. Meanwhile, subverting people’s expectations give you gems like Negima! Magister Negi Magi. In fact, mega-hit Puella Magi Madoka Magica is critically praised for doing so.

Another work that did this well was C³, which looked like yet another generic high school anime with a blue-haired female lead until around half-way through its second episode, which is extremely bloody and contains at least one decapitation of a living person. The whole while, this was being used as the opening theme:

Honestly, just because of the first episode’s tone, it’s like everyone forgot that the blue-haired girl is a human manifestation of a torture device born from hatred.

With an official English title like Archenemy and Hero, you’d expect a series about the forces of good fighting the forces of evil. Nope, the final battle between the ultimate good and evil is actually the very first scene, and said scene essentially becomes a debate on how their fighting is meaningless.

That said, this happened to work against Listen to Me, Girls. I Am Your Father!, despite the premise not at all being perverted. People thought it was, simply by reading stuff between the lines that weren’t there. Since the series does not intend for this, they lost a lot of people quickly before this misperception could be rectified.

That said, this sort of thing can be done on a smaller scale, too. My current indie game project Turtles all the Way has its main character use his magnetism powers to generate implosions, instantly avoiding what’s usually done with that sort of power. The novel I’m working on went and avoided a dystopia, instead writing a utopia that’s actually a utopia. When I decided to give the main character of said novel a permanent disease, I didn’t immediately fetch for cancer, AIDS, or anything TV Tropes would classify under Incurable Cough of Death, I went for vitiligo, which is more along the lines of a major annoyance and a physical blemish than anything.

Not to mention that you can also subvert expectations by not subverting expectations. Ben-To has its ridiculous premise of daily supermarket brawls over who gets to buy half-price food, and it worked brilliantly because they accepted the premise for what it was with open arms instead of dodging the issue. That, of course, only works with premises that make people react with something along the lines of:

There’s no way that’s really what the show’s about – It must be a trick.

But no, that really is Ben-To‘s plot:


If you’re still skeptical at what being non-indicative can do for a story, try it. It could be much more useful to you than you think.

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One thought on “Subverting Expectations

  1. Yo dawg, I heard you like subversions…

    Sorry, it had to be said. But regardless, I have a confession to make: I think I have a problem with getting people hooked quickly. I prefer to build things up slowly, so that once I’ve got the setup the story can really get moving. Sometimes it works, but other times…well, it doesn’t. With your mention of C3 and Listen to Me, Girls, I’m starting to suspect that maybe I should look over my own files — you know, to make sure that I put up a strong argument for sticking with my stories.

    So I suppose I should thank you for the post. And anime of course, but I pretty much do that every eight hours.

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