Being a Better Writer: Subverting Tropes

Something you’ll often hear when picking up reviews or word-of-mouth for new books that happen to be particularly praiseworthy is that something is “fresh” or “clever.” Maybe that it “does something new with the genre” or that it’s managed to put a “new twist on old ideas.”

Of course, if you’ve hung around authors, particularly a group of young ones, you may have also heard this phrase repeated: Nothing new under the sun. A common enough colloquial, especially if someone new enters a well-established writing group and claims to have written something “new.” Older members will often toss this phrase back at them, sometimes as a dismissal, sometimes as a warning of “Be ready, it may not be as new as you think.”

Notice a disparity here? If there’s “nothing new under the sun” then how do new books get praise such as “new to the genre,” “fresh,” etc, etc? Well, let’s make something clear: Those reviews aren’t lying (well, not outside sometimes well-intentioned misinformation). They’re not misrepresenting something.

Don’t worry, this all ties in to the topic at hand.

See, the crux of it really comes in that last bit I gave from common reviews up in that first paragraph. This idea of a “new twist on old ideas.” Which is why I (and, in my experience, many other authors) don’t quite fully agree with the “nothing new under the sun” sentiment. Because sure, if you strip an idea down to the bare-core, suddenly it sounds like almost any other idea. Boy without parents learns he possesses a rare power and with the aid of a mentor must do battle against evil. Is that Harry Potter? Or is that Star Wars? Or is it any other of hundreds of very different stories out there starring a boy who has a rare power and fights evil. Crud, open up the floodgates there and replace “boy” with “protagonist” and now we have every story under that umbrella as well that has a female protagonist. And suddenly such a blanket statement applies to, well, a good portion of all stories ever written.

Which is why when experienced authors utter the phrase “nothing new under the sun*” there’s always that little asterisk at the end. Because these authors know that it’s a generalist statement used with a large caveat attached. Taking it literally is much like saying that both Boeing and General Dynamics make jet aircraft, therefor both make the same product … when one makes passenger and cargo jet airliners, while the other makes the deadly F-16. Yes, both are jet aircraft … but both are so different from one another you could only that they are the same by boiling the debate down to the most basic of points (such as “This is an aircraft, yes/no,” at which point you’ve lost almost all understanding of the two in the first place).

Okay, I promised this had to do with writing (and the topic at hand), so … how?

Well, I wanted to start by tackling this idea of “nothing new under the sun” because it is an important thing to remember … but only as long as you understand it in the barest principles. Single-sentence ideas, effectively. You have to keep in mind that the moment you go deeper into the concept, differences and details will arise that can help your work stand apart and be original … even if it’s following something as ancient and classic as the “Hero’s Journey” monomyth.

Got that? Good. Because now it’s time to break things down a little further and talk about tropes (see, I told you we’d get there).

Sometimes when I talk with young writers, I get the impression that they think that tropes are bad. Which … is not true. I need to make that clear up front. A trope isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s simply something that just is. Young writers (and wanna-be critics, for that matter) often seem to get confused by the idea of what a trope is and conflate it with a cliche, which it is not. A trope is like … an animal in a zoo. It can be a predator, and may be a predator, but that doesn’t mean that it will be or is a predator. There are many animals in a zoo that are not predators. As well, without any animals at all, there is no zoo.

Tropes in a story are like the animals in a zoo. Without them, you have no story. And just because a trope can be a cliche does not mean that it is one. I can’t make that any clearer. A trope is not a cliche.

What a trope is, then, is effectively … an segment of an idea. Or a concept. An occurrence. Any of these things and/or all of them, repeated as a common element. For example, do you have a team of characters working together toward some goal? That’s a trope. And each of the “roles” those characters fill inside the team? Also tropes.

If you’re feeling at this point that this means tropes can be a bit endless, well … you’re not wrong. This is why browsing the site TV Tropes, which attempts to document all the tropes it can, ends up being a bit of a time sink (and no, I’m not linking that at this time for that exact reason). While there is a clear end to how far you can “define” tropes (the rabbit hole does have an end), it’s pretty far down.

In other words, tropes aren’t something that should be “deliberately avoided.” In fact, if you sit down to write a story attempting to do such, you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. Hard. It’d be about as pointless an exercise as telling your friends that you were going to open a zoo … with no animal life at all to come look at. Sure, you could probably do it … but no one’s going to be very fascinated by the result (barring a few ways to make it comedic or a one-note joke … but then you’d drift into, surprise surprise, trope territory).

Along with that, tropes aren’t bad. They’re simply aspects of a story, small phrases or concepts that can be used to simplify a single part of a story. Which means while they can be a cliche, the act of having a trope doesn’t mean that they are a cliche, again no more than an animal in a zoo is always a predator.

Crud, you don’t even need to be aware of “tropes” for your story to be full of them. Sometimes tropes only become apparent in hindsight, or after the story is done. If you just want to write, you don’t even need to be aware of tropes—though fair warning, just as some tropes can also be cliches, you might want to know about those.

But all right, so what does this have to do with the title text of subverting tropes? Well, now that we’ve talked a little bit about what tropes are (remember, a segment of an idea, a concept, an occurrence in a story, or similar that is repeated or often seen), let’s talk about usage.

Tropes are going to happen. It’s inevitable. Are you writing a story about a rebellion of some kind? Well, no matter what … Just look at the TV Tropes page on Rebel Tropes to get an idea of what’s out there. Your story is going to fall under at least one—but probably several—of these tropes.

Again, this isn’t bad. Crud, most if not all of the pages for each trope listed on that page has a “Real Life” subheading where people list some of the more well-known times this same thing has occurred in the real world.

But sometimes, these tropes are common enough that people can start to expect what’s coming (and now we start moving into cliche). Which means that a genre-savvy reader may be able to predict what’s going to happen next (whether or not it makes sense) … Which means in turn that a clever writer can use that to their advantage and subvert the readers’ expectations by turning the trope on its head.

Confused? Let’s be classic and go with an example. Ever seen a romantic comedy? These films are built (practically manufactured) from tropes and cliches both, bolted together from the same stock elements over and over and over again. Which means that someone who enjoys watching them can usually predict the majority of a new rom-com within the first few opening scenes … often down to who is secretly in love with who and how they’ll hook up.

Now, this isn’t to say that those elements are bad, just that they’ve been so often used that the audience knows what to expect. Even if it’s done well, and in a way that doesn’t feel tired or overused, it can still be something predictable.

And at that moment, when the creator knows that a large portion of the audience is jumping ahead, knows by experience that they’ve made an estimate of what’s to come, that the creator can subvert those expectations by throwing out a twist.

Let’s go with a comedic example (because comedy often subverts tropes and cliches for humorous effect). Ever seen the original Star Wars trilogy (if not, what the what, and spoilers incoming)? That famous “I am your father” line that’s super famous and been repeated a million times since? Remember that, and how many other films/books/stories have made the antagonist related to the protagonist in some way?

Okay, now go watch Mel Brook’s Spaceballs, which subverts the line to great effect. During the finale of the film, when the protagonist faces off against the evil Dark Helmet (you really should see this film), Dark Helmet declares that there’s something the hero should know before he fights him, a line delivered in a similar manner to Darth Vader’s “Obi-wan never told you the truth about your father” level of seriousness. The hero asks “What?” The obvious expectation the audience is “I am your father” trope.

To which Dark Helmet replies “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.” To which the hero (and most of the audience) says in confusion, after mulling it over for a second “What’s that make us?”

To which Dark Helmet replies “Absolutely nothing!” throwing the whole “we’re related” trope out the window, but by first drawing the audience’s attention to it so that they expect it.

The subversion? The moment the answer is anything but an expy of “I am your father.” The audience is familiar with the trope, familiar with where it goes … and when it abruptly goes somewhere else (especially somewhere a bit more logical) the trope has been subverted. What comes after calls attention to this subversion through ridiculousness, urging the audience to laugh at their own expectations before they were subverted.

The thing is, you don’t have to go comedic to “subvert” a trope. All that “subverting” a trope means is that you (the creator) have set up a common idea or approach for the audience that surprises the audience by turning into something else (and sometimes, trope subversion is done often enough that it becomes a trope of its own).

Often, though, when we go back to stories that are declared “fresh” or “a new take” on something, it’s because they have subverted what the audience expected. The took a trope the audience was familiar with and gave it a new spin, a new approach, or even (as we’re talking about today) subverted it by taking it in a very different direction.

For example, take Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn (note: we’re about to have all kinds of spoilers). One of the most common adventure tropes is the “rag-tag team rebelling against the fantasy empire” and the Fantasy genre is no different. But Mistborn subverts that trope very early on by having its ragtag team not out to rebel against the empire and overthrow it … but to stage a heist and rob the coffers of the emperor to retire in wealth and splendor for the rest of their days. So rather than a ragtag group of rebels, which is the expectation as per the usual trope, it’s actually a ragtag group of thieves looking to pull a heist. Except—and big spoiler warning here—in the end it turns out that the leader of the group had actually pulled a con on the team as well as everyone else. His goal was to kick off a revolution, and the objectives to carry that out were so alongside pulling off a heist that no one noticed right up until the moment they’d gone too far to safely back out.

That’s a trope subversion (right up until it isn’t) that helps keep the story feeling fresh. It takes what the audience expected from the setup and does something else with it.

Another example: Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, has a clever subversion of a trope near the story’s end (spoiler warning again). The characters end up trapped in a small convenience store, surrounded on all side by vicious predators trying to break in and no where to go. The characters turn to the building’s computer for a solution, since the computers control the island’s security systems, cameras, etc. The next few pages are a tense bit as most of the group tries to keep the predators out while shouting suggestions at the character using the computer. The character clicks all around the computer, trying to make sense of the highly-visual system, figure out what icons mean what, etc, trying to piece together the clues (all of which are given to the reader) … Only to realize the computer isn’t the source of the solution at all and throw all the clues aside as she realizes that there’s no actual computer near her, but a cable running elsewhere. A thick heavy cable … which implies a crawlspace. Which the characters then use to escape.

Thus, the story sets up a trope as a solution (one used in the first Jurassic Park book) only to subvert it by casting it all aside in favor of a practical solution that wasn’t in the trope at all.

Okay, enough examples. Let’s talk shop. How can you subvert tropes to keep your story fresh?

Well, for starters, you need to be well-read. Like I said earlier, tropes are not bad. They just are. But if you’re going to use them consciously, then you will need to know what they are and how they are used. And to do that? You need to be well-read. Watch movies, read books, etc etc etc, and look for patterns. Look for common elements. If you’re really studying it, after you finish something look it up on TV Tropes and browse a little to see what tropes it holds true to. Learn to see them.

Now, once you know the tropes, they can become a bit like a framework in your writer’s toolbox, an approach or method that you can pull out when you see a proper application. And when I say framework, I mean in a loose sense, almost in the way you know a wall will need a doorway or a window. At the end of the day, remember, it may “just be” a door or a window, but there is a lot of variance in that statement (which is why I started this post the way I did).

So learn about tropes. Build a loose framework in your mind of what they are. Don’t, however, mistake them for a story frame. They’re a door or a window, rather than a full-structure-in-one. Something you can fit to a situation, rather than the other way around. So learn about them, and have them in your toolbox so that when they come up, you can identify them.

A side note here: If you don’t know about tropes, you will still end up using them. Tropes are … unavoidable, really. They’re simply bits of stories. Whether or not you know them, you’ll use them.

Knowing about them, however, means you’ll have the framework for certain tropes in your writer’s toolbox, ready to come out so that you can put it over something you’ve done and go “Yes, that’s this trope.”

Then, once you know you’ve set up the trope, then, if you want to, you can take steps to subvert it or play it straight, however you want. But, in order to do that, you need to know what the trope is.

Plus, there’s a catch. There usually is. In this case, it’s that subverting a trope isn’t simply as easy as yanking the rug out from under the audience and saying “Surprise, I didn’t do this!” There are books that do this, yes, and they’re known, unfortunately, for being jarring in their “joy” at subverting things. Because all they do is shout “Fooled you!” at the reader while doing an abrupt right-angle. They subvert the trope to subvert the trope and be “clever,” rather than to tell a good story that plays consistent internally.

In other words, if you’re going to subvert a trope, it needs to be a logical subversion that flows within the story’s internal consistency. The characters can’t just defy a trope for no other reason than “Look, I’m defying this trope!” They need to have reasons why they would go against the grain, shift gears, step sideways, etc etc, and you need to make that logic clear so that when the subversion does happen, your reader thinks to themselves “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”

Going back to the example with Mistborn, the first subversion works because the reader expects the group to be a ragtag team of rebels based on the protagonist viewpoint, only for the motivations of those characters to fit the subversion. Later, though, when things are turned on their head, those same character traits are used to rope all the characters in further to the actual revolution. In both cases the subversion holds true to the characters and who they are.

In your own work, subversions you write need to be like that: subversions of what the audience would normally expect without the logic in your work that dictates otherwise.

So, you need to know the tropes, and what the framework is. And then, if you want to subvert them, you need to set up the story in advance so that the audience can understand how and why you broke the framework.

And … that’s pretty much it. Know the tropes. Know how or where they’re applied, so that if you do want to subvert them, you know what steps you need to take in advance to do so!

In addition, if you don’t subvert anything big, recall that this isn’t bad. Playing tropes as they are can still give rise to a solid, fresh story. After all, tropes are not cliches. Tropes can be a cliche, but are not such be default, and just because your story is full of tropes doesn’t mean that it’s a jet liner just like a Boeing passenger liner is. It may be an F-16.

Whew. That’s a lot of material for one day. Use it well.

Now go get writing!

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