Flipping the Script

I love a good trope as much as the next girl. When two rivals forced by circumstance to work together show up at an inn, the room they’re given better have only one bed. Better yet, have them kiss to avoid being discovered by the enemy!

But often while reading, I want to be surprised. Don’t get me wrong–tropes and archetypes can be useful, and certainly play their roles in providing your reader with solid ground. But it can often be even more useful to flip these tropes on their heads. The technical term for this is subversion, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbox. Curious to know more? Keep reading for a few of my favorite techniques to use your audience’s expectations both for and against them in order to create a more compelling read.

Start with dialogue. Witty banter is a must for a snappy and fast-paced read. But it’s easy to let characters fall into a rhythm where your reader might almost be able to predict what they’re going to say next. If you feel your characters keep more or less saying the same thing over and over, try playing with that familiarity to make it unexpected. Oscar Wilde was a master of this–he’d start a line of dialogue with a familiar phrase, then take the second half of the line in a completely different direction for humorous effect. For example: “All the world’s a stage…but the play is badly cast.” He knows the audience expects something, and upends that expectation for a witty surprise.

Try this with your own writing. If a conversation feels stale, try having the characters say the exact opposite of what they mean, take a familiar phrase in an unfamiliar direction, or flip a familiar saying on its head (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”)

Move on to worldbuilding. If you’re writing fantasy, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of building a familiar, wholly expected world that will surprise your reader not one jot (coughGameofThronescough). Even in other genres, world building often has a set of expectations that, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself emulating. The trick here is to be aware of the tropes, where they arise from, and why they’re common. For example, patriarchal societies are so common in fantasy writing because they’re based on Western medieval history, and the first half a century of fantasy writing was dominated by white males. When you use this expectation against your reader and subvert it, by putting women in power or even exploring a society where men are second-class citizens, your story will almost certainly be more compelling than if you follow what others have done before you.

So take a long hard look at the world you’ve built (even if it’s a world that looks very much like our own). How much of that world is knee-jerk fill-in-the-blank? And if it feels like a place you’ve maaaaybe been before, how can you subvert those expectations for a more original, compelling setting?

Next up? Characters. Want to write about the Chosen One? How about nah. Don’t get me wrong–these stories do and will continue to exist, and there’s value in that. But how often have you read a book where the Chosen One’s sidekick is the main character? Or better yet, the Chosen One’s opponent, who views the Chosen One as the villain? Now there’s a compelling story, amiright? Most craft books will tell you that all characters fall into certain archetypes–the Trickster, the Warrior, the Damsel, the King. And sure, that’s partially true. But the value here is knowing these archetypes, understanding their benefits, then learning when and where to turn them upside down. Go through your cast of characters and think about their stereotypes, then consider where you could subvert them.

Maybe your Damsel is really a Trickster, luring Warriors to their doom. Or perhaps your Warrior is actually a Damsel at heart, terrified behind their mask of strength. The harder you examine the archetypes you fall back on in creating characters, the more opportunities you have to explore their inverses!

And finally…plot. This one is arguably the hardest, especially when craft books like Save the Cat argue that all stories follow the same basic structures. Again, the trick here is to identify tropes before they happen…and then put your own twist on it. For example, everyone knows that no matter how hard characters try to avoid a prophecy, it always comes true–in fact, usually the things they do to avoid the prophecy make it come true! What if, instead, your characters want a prophecy to come true, but no matter what they do they can’t seem to trigger it? Instead of your villain trying to prevent your hero from achieving his goal, maybe they actually want the same exact thing?

Again, you want to examine the building blocks of your story and identify where you may be falling into old familiar ruts. Does the good guy win? Is the villain a mustache-twirling madman? When you find these elements, see whether you can upend them in such a way as to use your readers’ expectations against them, a surprise them with something fresh and unexpected.

Which are your favorite literary tropes? Or, better yet, which are your favorite tropes you love to see subverted? Share you thoughts in the comment section!

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