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?

Continue reading

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 …

Continue reading