This week: Subverting TropesEdited by: Jayne
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"There's nothing new under the sun" certainly applies to writing. From 'the two types of stories', to 'the seven basic plots', from 'archetypes', to 'story beats', there's commonality to all stories. The identification of beats that are expected to be within certain genres—which we call tropes— combined with the other classifications means somewhere, at some time, someone has told this story in some fashion. How can you take those pre-existing notions and turn them on their head?
No matter how hard you try, your genre has expectations. Whether it's a narrative, set pieces, character archetypes, scenes or other elements, these constraints can result in repetitive writing. The thing is, these reader expectations aren't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they can be the exact thing that point consumers in your direction. Mystery readers like mystery tropes. Some may prefer a mystery of a certain type, such as cozies over hard-boiled, but genre readers expect those story elements and beats to be there. When they aren't, reader reception gets dicey.
None of this means you have to adhere to formulaic, repetitive patterns (although many writers have done so and turned out just fine). There's a huge difference between a trope and a cliché. Tropes are expected story points (a detective, maybe even one who's not surprised by crime anymore). The cliché is the alcoholic, womanizing detective. Not only is it overdone, it's wildly out of date. Avoiding clichés but using trope expectations to give the reader something fresh is a great way to make your work stand out.
1. Subverting tropes doesn't mean 'do the opposite'.
Take the drunk, womanizing detective. The temptation may be to do a swap and switch the detective to a female. Does that really make the character unique? One way to subvert the trope is to put the behaviour into a modern context and call it out for what it is.
Another example is a modern take on Sherlock Holmes, where smoking is replaced with wearing a whole whack of nicotine patches. It communicates several messages all at once: eccentricities, addictions, defiance and more.
2. Subversion doesn't have to mean 'comedy'.
Not that comedy can't be used to great effect. Spaceballs subverts the 'I am your father' from Star Wars like nobody's business. Parody and satire are also very effective. Deadpool plays with both throughout the comic, and the graphic novels V for Vendetta and The Watchmen brilliantly cut at the trope of not only what makes a superhero, but whether or not superheroes are a good thing.
3. Be logical.
Replacing a gold-hoarding dragon with a gem-loving dragon isn't subverting a trope, it's trading one cliché for another. Unless it's a Jem-hoarding dragon, with a massive collection of 1980's rocker chic Barbie knockoffs. It would certainly be unexpected. But there would have to be an awfully good reason for it.
A recent example or trope subversion is found with Thanos, the villain from The Avengers. The usual villain characteristics of greed and selfishness are upended as his end goal is for the betterment of the universe. And while his methodology is bonkers, at it's core, his reasons appear logical. It smashes the anti-hero and villain together, both of which are objectively bad people, but not always for bad reasons.
The best way to subvert tropes is to know them. The more you read within your genre, the more tropes you'll recognize. The more you read outside your genre, the more tropes you can pull in to your writing (assuming it makes sense to use them in context). Like anything else in the writer's toolbox, the more you have to work with, the better the final product.
So, while 'there's nothing new under the sun', there's plenty of different ways to enjoy the sunshine. Happy writing!
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