Being a Better Writer: Good Subversions

Welcome back, readers, to another Being a Better Writer post!

Okay, so it’s not that surprising. After all, these things have been dropping like clockwork each Monday for almost five years now, so any surprise at this point either means you’re new or really poor at picking up on patterns. But in any case, it’s Unusual Things‘ … well, thing!

Anyway, I got all relevant news out of the way last week with the last news post, and there’s nothing new that’s worth bringing up at this time, so let’s just dive in to today’s topic shall we? And, oh yes, this is a request topic (clearing out the last of Topic List Ten, so get ready to suggest new topics), one that’s been a long time coming!

So, today we’re going to talk about writing good subversions. Which, almost immediately, means that our first question is going to be “What is a subversion?”

Well, it’s both simple and more complicated than it seems at the same time. But a subversion is when the story sets up an expected path, event, trope, etc, and then when the moment arrives to bring that same event/trope/story element to its expected conclusion … something happens to turn everything the reader expected about said element on its head. It’s called a subversion because when you subvert something, you undermine the established “traditional” narrative, or disrupt it. In other words, you—the author—have become a subversive element to an established trope, event, etc.

Let’s talk examples, and pick one of the more famous ones: The classic fantasy damsel in distress. We’ll start with an even more common story-arc in this formula, that of the princess being kidnapped by a dragon, and a heroic knight sent out to rescue her in return for her hand in marriage. That’s the classic setup echoed across fairy-tale and folklore for the longest time.

Now? Let’s subvert it! Sat we follow this story, it’s novella length, from the knight’s perspective as he travels across the land, in pursuit of this dragon and hunting for its lair. Then, after a time and some arduous travels, he arrives to find … That the princess doesn’t want to be rescued, thank you very much. She’s best friends with the dragon, been pen pals for years, and her dragon friend wasn’t kidnapping her but saving her from … Oh, an abusive parentage, or an arranged marriage of political convenience that the knight was specifically not told about (so that the king can conveniently backstab him later). The princess isn’t being poorly treated, but in fact is living well and finding her true calling as a baker …

And so on and so forth. Point being, the “classic” story has been turned on its head by the changing of a few key elements, and these upend what’s “expected” of that type of story or trope.

And crud, you can do this a couple of different ways, too. You can have the knight be another dragon in disguise. You can have the king have hired said dragon to teach his daughter a little humility, etc, etc. As long as you start out with something that’s a common story element, as long as you can turn it on its head, that’s a subversion.

Of course, it’s not quite so easy. At least, not if you want to do a good subversion. Which leads me to a side note I’m going to point out here as an example of the next bit we need to talk about: Most of the time you encounter a subversion, you’ll find a common thread linking stories of this type.

They’re often short.

You’ve seen the type if you’ve read enough books. A quick, dirty, short story that sets up the traditional archetype, subverts it, and then ends on a fast, lighthearted note, moving the reader along to another story before the reader can stop and think too much on the elements of the story that make up the subversion. Why?

Well, because in many of those cases, the subversion will fall apart if the reader looks at it closely enough. So the author keeps the story short—usually fairly barebones—and makes a good one-shot laugh out of it.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, except that it means that at its core, the subversion used probably isn’t a very good one, because it doesn’t hold up to a rigorous examination. Then again, as I said, it’s not meant to. It’s a quick short.

But what if you don’t want to write a quick short, but still want to subvert a trope, archetype, story idea, etc. Well, here’s where things get tricky. Because you can still do it, however, you’re going to have to do a lot of careful “extra” work to make it happen.

See, when you move past a story of the length of “haha, moving on” and into something like a novella, a novel, or an epic, when you subvert something you can’t simply just throw it in. Why?

Because a subversion works on flipping established elements and showing them to be something else. However, unless you’ve actually built the elements of your story to work under this subversion, the subversion itself won’t make logical sense. In other words, you need to plan for your subversion from the beginning and then build the story around the subversion so that it still rings true to the reader.

This is harder than it sounds, because what it effectively boils down to is being incredibly deft with your misdirection (here’s a post on that, by the way). You need to present a setup for your world and story that seem like one thing, only to reveal itself upon the subversion—and close examination and retrospection from the audience—to be something else entirely.

Sound hard? Well, it is. This is why you’ll occasionally find some longer subversion stories ending everything with an “explanation” chapter that explains why what the reader thought was one way was another. Effectively, the author wasn’t skilled enough to put the misdirection together, so they offer the reader instead a chapter of explanations as to why what they said was A was really B.

Ham-handed? Yes, But the fact that this happens at all should tell you how tricky it can be to subvert expectations while still keeping the world true to itself. Let’s go back our earlier example of a damsel not in distress to tackle this in action.

So, we’ve got our knight who discovers that the princess he was sent to rescue isn’t in the mood for a rescue at all, because her dragon best friend saved her from something else, right? Well, we need to have hinted at the real reasons all along. Say we go for the pawning the princess off in a political marriage angle. From the very start, this needs to be a part of our story that the reader and the protagonist miss. For example, when they’re meeting the king, the king could have someone that gets a line of description about “looking foreign” or out of place at the king’s court (a hint of the political favor being curried. Said individual could speak up in favor of getting the princess back. Nothing big, just a single line. Just enough so that later when the princess or the dragon explains why they got her out of there, the reader and the protagonist goes “Oh, suddenly that one line make a lot more sense!” Or you could have a line from the king that seems oddly specific, like “The princess is vital to the future of this kingdom” which, while true, carries a bit of extra meaning to it once the context is exposed.

There can (and should be) other hints as well. The knight could come across townfolk near the dragon’s home that don’t seem at all perturbed by the dragon living nearby, which would make the whole thing suspicious. Or they might note at the castle that it was a pretty clean, fast kidnapping. Or even something as subtle as the knight thinking to themselves that the princess actually lived a pretty sparse life with empty shelves (because, as it turns out, she took most of her stuff with her).

The trick is, all of these hints need to be there, yes, and need to be on display, but at the same time can’t give away the subversion. Well, they might, but the goal is not to until the actual moment you have the big reveal. Like I said, this is kind of tricky.

Granted, there’s another angle to this as well. Where will the reveal of the subversion take place? Is it going to be in the first few chapters? The middle of the story? Or at the very end? This is going to be important to plant for as well, as you’re going to want to consider the consequences of your subversion as well.

Again, going back to our example, say the the reveal of what’s really going on takes place at the halfway point. Halfway through the story, our knight finds out what’s really going on and the subversion is made. Well, now you as the author have to live with it through the next half of the story. Which now means you have to play all the reasons behind and for the subversion through to their conclusion (whatever that is), and have it all still fall in line with what has existed in the story up until this point.

Sound hard? Well, it’s mostly a matter of planning and careful misdirection until the reveal, but yeah, it can be.

Of course, you can make it easier. You don’t have to build an entire story out of a subversion. You can build a scene or a chapter out of one just as well. For example, you can have a chapter where the reader (and characters) expect a big, knock-em-out battle, only to have the battle in question be a musical battle. You still have to do a bit of the work, but not nearly so much, as it’ll only matter for a chapter, and once that chapter is over, said and done, you’re moving on. The work is still there, but its scope is condensed down to a single chapter (or however long the sequence takes). Note also that the scope of the subversion itself is smaller as well. Rather than subverting the entire expected plot, like our dragon example, it’s just subverting a single chapter’s worth of events.

You can tighten this down even further, too, making subversions so small that they crop up in only a single paragraph before the story moves on. Usually this kind of thing can be played for laughs, or just as a nice break in the normal scheme of things, but they’re as simple as an unexpected reaction or a small twist on a tiny moment. Again, the same rules still apply, but again, it gets easier still as you’re mostly focused on a brief window of time.

Now, I want to talk about something else for a moment. Moving away from laying groundwork for a subversion of any size and scope, there’s something else you have to consider when putting forth a subversion: you need to know the archetype you’re subverting.

Ever read Discworld? Part of the appeal of the world of the Disc was that it took what readers knew of fantasy, complete with its tropes and archetypes, and turned them all on their heads. But in order to do that, the series author, Sir Terry Prachett, had to know in great detail all the tropes and archetypes he was going to turn around back to front. Sort of like the old saying “it takes a good actor to play a bad one” if you’re going to subvert a common expectation or story archetype, you’re going to need to understand that expectation or archetype in all its various facets, and understand it well in order to most effectively make the most of moving away from it … or even know where and when to move away, or what’s already been done as far as subversions go and that was done well/not-well!

Effectively in order to subvert something, you need to be familiar with that thing. Take the anime series Konosuba, for example, which is a giant comedic deconstruction of both LitRPG Light Novels and then anime in general. Many of the jokes it pulls, from humorous background animations to character dialogue, work specifically if the viewer is familiar with the source material that the show itself is deconstructing, which the creators could in turn only do if they had a solid understanding of the source material and why it worked in the first place.

What does this mean? Well, it’s a bit like my old line of “Always do the research,” but in this case it’s “Be knowledgeable about what you’re subverting.” Want to subvert fantasy? Read fantasy. Know the tropes, the archetypes. And don’t read summaries, either. Read the actual fantasy. There are plenty of would-be new authors that have read a few summaries and think they’re ready to change a genre forever, only to fall right into traps they would have known about had they done their due diligence.

While you’re at it, it can pay to be well read enough to know the common subversions, too. Take the example I gave first in this article for instance; the knight “rescuing” a princess who was already rescued by the dragon. Would I write that story? No, because it’s a common subversion found everywhere from children’s books to YA to adult novels (which isn’t to say I don’t have my own subversion in mind, but you’ll have to wait for More Unusual Events to get a look at that).

It’s an obvious subversion if you’re familiar with the genre, and as such, it’s been done. Dozens if not dozens of dozens of times. And if you’re passingly familiar with the genre, but not enough to know this, you may write what you think is a clever deconstruction/subversion of the genre, only to discover upon release that it, while well written, is astonishingly common.

Know what you’re trying to subvert, but also know what subversions are commonplace among your chosen area so that you don’t jump to the first idea you have … which happens to be the same one everyone else did.

All right, there’s one last thing I want to talk about when it comes to subversions, and it’s … well, it’s the inverse. We still call it a subversion (and I’ll explain why in a moment), so it’s effectively a subclass of a subversion despite technically not being one in the technical sense (again, I’ll explain this in a moment and it’ll all make sense), but a subversion all the same. And this is when you play it straight.

Okay, this one requires some explanation. Playing it straight is when you take something to its logical conclusion. Rather than giving it some strange twist, you simply take it for face value and extrapolate from there.

A great example is The Silver Horde from the aforementioned Discworld series. The Silver Horde is a play on the classic “Conan the Barbarian” trope that simply plays the idea to a logical extreme. In this case, The Silver Horde is a troupe composed of barbarian warriors that are all really good at their job.

They’re also really old. Like, 70s and 80s, and still going. The “playing it straight” comes in when it is made apparent to the reader that they’re still adventuring, still kicking in doors, and they’re still alive for all the foolhardy Conan-esque trouble they dive into … and that must be because they are really good at what they do. So naturally, they’ve gotten old. But they haven’t stopped being good!

That? That’s playing it straight. They’re old, sure, but naturally, they can only be that old with what they do if they’re really good at it.

How is this a subversion if it’s playing itself logically? Well, it’s a subversion because of that, actually. See, all this talk of archetypes and tropes? There’s a lot of times when these elements are extremely ingrained in the collective conscious … but really aren’t that logical when we stop to think about them.

Take film and swordfighting, for example. What you see in a movie when two characters come at one another with swords is 90% of the time 100% unrealistic. It’s not representative of a real sword-fight at all, but instead something called “Flynning,” named for Errol Flynn, a swordsman of early Hollywood who understood that spectacle was what sold the cinema, not realism. Real sword fights are rough, brutal, efficient means of combat—after all, the goal is to kill the other guy as quickly as possible. But in films, such  fight is often less entertaining than a long, drawn out battle with verbal jabs and lots of flashy movement.

The end result is that for the average movie-watcher, “Flynning” is swordfighting, despite being an inverse of the real thing. So when a movie plays it straight with real sword combat, the audience’s own expectations are “subverted” by the story letting a swordfight be real.

Which is why playing it straight is both a subversion and technically not. It’s not because it’s actually letting things play out to a logical (if sometimes humorous) extreme, but at the same time, it is a subversion because the common path of the genre is so often in another direction—even if that other direction really doesn’t make much logical sense—and the audience is used to that reaction.

Playing things straight can be a wonderful way to subvert your audiences expectation, though it does require as with other subversions a knowledge of your source material as well as an understanding of what your audience will expect atop of that. But it’s a fun tool for making a memorable scene, character, or event if used properly. Such as the famous “Sword Duel” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The audience is trained to expect a big sword duel, and is waiting for a big sword duel. So when Indy does the logical thing, pulls his revolver, and shoots the swordsman, the audience gets to laugh at their own shock and realization of “Oh yeah, that makes sense!”

Crud, I love using this one in my own works. Near the end of Dead Silver, for instance, when the two protagonists have caught up with one of the story’s antagonists and tell him to spill the beans … he does. He tells them everything. Which at first, seems surprising, until said antagonist points out that with everyone else involved dead, his is the only version of events anyone will ever get, and he’s already been caught. Why not give them a version of events that puts him in the best possible light in order to reduce his sentence? It’s a scene that runs counter to the old hat of “I’ll never talk” or “I’ll tell everything in the worst possible detail” but at the same time, makes absolute logical sense when you think about it. The antagonist is simply playing his position straight.

Whew! What a post! Okay, let’s recap!

A subversion is when a work runs counter to, inverts, or otherwise undermines a commonly held archetype, trope(s), or elements of the genre. You can do this anywhere, with any size, from a single-paragraph up to chapters or a whole book with the subversion at its base, but you have to remember that you need to lay the ground work as well as consider how this will affect the entire story moving past the reveal of the subversion. Or scene, etc.

In addition, in order to do any of this, you need to be familiar with the genre, archetypes, tropes, and the like of what you’re subverting, as well as what some of the common subversions are, so you don’t do the same thing.

Lastly, you can subvert the audience expectations by not pulling a common subversion and instead playing something straight to its logical conclusion. Which, again, requires everything else we’ve discussed as well as a knowledge of your audience’s experience and expectations with the genre.

Right, that’s it! Subversions! Get to it!

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