Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Most readers and writers know about plot twists, which usually result from situational irony--setting up an expectation that is later resolved in a manner different from that which one is led to believe is likely. However, writers can, and sometimes do, also upset expectations regarding other elements of fiction, such as character, conflict, setting, and theme.
A character who is established as self-centered and self-serving can turn out to be capable of being altruistic and humane, as Han Solo, of Star Wars, turns out to be.
A conflict that seems likely to end in only one way can end in an unexpected manner, as the conflict between Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler does; all the way to the end of the novel, Rhett is interested in winning the heartless Scarlett’s heart, and, when he finally seems to get his own heart’s desire, well, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he tells her.
A setting that appears to be dangerous can turn out to be a refuge, as Spike’s crypt is for Dawn when she is being hunted by the goddess Glory (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The opposite can be true, too: a character who seeks sanctuary in a church can find that the holy place is a place of danger, as Nightcrawler does in the X2: X-Men United movie, only to be tracked down and captured by Jean Grey and Storm. A theme can also be inverted through irony.
The apparent theme of a story can be provided, perhaps through the dialogue or the habitual behavior of a character, only to be reversed at the end of the narrative or drama. At the outset of Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski, a racist war hero, avoids young people, members of ethnic and racial groups, religious people, and anyone else who does not measure up to his narrow standards of propriety until he rescues a young Hmong woman from black gang members who seem intent upon raping her. The movie’s theme, which seems to be that it is best to mind one’s own business, adopting an everyone-for-himself philosophy, turns out to be one that affirms the importance of brotherly love and self-sacrifice.