The human brain is exceptionally adept at detecting patterns, and forming expectations based on those patterns. In fact, it’s one of the things that sets us apart from many lower life forms. It’s also largely the process through which we learn. As the saying goes: practice makes perfect.
But an overreliance on expectations and their fulfillment is where we get in trouble. That way lies the land of repetition and narrow-mindedness, of stereotypes and prejudice. And if it’s allowed to continue unchallenged, that stagnation could well be our demise. The most exciting discoveries are those that are unexpected. We must constantly remind ourselves that our knowledge is limited — and the edge of knowledge is the most thrilling place to be.
Defying expectations is something I am not unfamiliar with. If you ask my writing partner, Bo Yeon Kim, she’d probably say the same is true for her. It’s one of the things that drew us together, both as friends and writing partners.
To list a few examples:
Etymologically, my name is German, but I am American. When people see me, they can often guess that I have some Asian blood, but they probably can’t guess that I am a quarter Vietnamese on my mom’s side — my mom, who was adopted by American parents, her adoptive father being a CIA agent who took the family with him around Asia on his various assignments. If you talk to me, you might assume I grew up in the US — but I grew up in France, and consider myself bilingual and bicultural. If you ask me what my dream job is, it’s to write for television. If you ask me what I’m currently doing, it’s getting a Ph.D. in neurobiology.
And if you ask what my writing partner and I, two girls who met on the badminton team at Bryn Mawr College, want to write? Genre. Spaceships, futuristic technology, supernatural creatures. (Although, if you talk to either of us for more than five minutes, that’s not so much of a surprise.)
Now that is one pattern I do want to continue. Subverting expectations. Eliciting surprise.
Musicians and comedians are well acquainted with the concept of patterns and expectations.
The best of them are experts in setting up patterns — but twisting expectations. The same can be applied to writing.
I used to think I wanted to write novels. Then I fell in love with TV. There’s a certain kind of magic to having a group of people, each with their own background and voice, converging on a single vision. As part of a writing team, I can confirm: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the things that inspired our writing partnership was our admiration for Battlestar Galactica (2004). To be able to absorb the viewer into an alien world, where none of the specifics may seem relatable, and yet tell a compelling story that is in some way revealing of our behavior — that is something I am drawn to, as a writer. With our pilots, we set up large science-fiction worlds, complete with all the trappings that make us love the genre so much — spaceships, world-building, action, mystery, snark — but we focus on characters who reflect our own experiences. For instance, one of our protagonists is a female solo spaceship pilot who finds herself trapped in a war between two social contingents, a character who, like us, never quite fits into a single culture, but on some level is able to integrate into several.
The glory of writing for television is its potential — to explore different personalities, different walks of life, different worlds. To showcase the diversity of humanity while always grounding it in its universality. As a writer, I have the privilege and the duty to try to tell stories that expose the audience to new perspectives. Of course, it’s always cooler when it’s set in space. (That’s the last mention of space, I swear).
I’m not saying I’m going to change the world, but if, in my own way, I can contribute to opening up people’s minds, and always strive to keep my own mind open, then I’d say that’s a worthy goal. The CBS Writers Mentorship Program is a particularly fitting place to start this journey, but it is a life-long endeavor. And I hope to never limit myself to the comfort of familiarity. You shouldn’t either.
It’s an ambitious goal to be sure. But really, where’s the fun in life if you just do what’s expected of you?