21

I recently came across something I wrote in 4th or 5th grade, where the MCs, a girl and a boy, were superheroes. One wore a blue costume with knives, and the other wore a pink one with flowers... BUT PSYCH! The girl wore the blue one! And the boy wore the pink! Your stereotypes mean nothing to my unsharpened-pencil wielding mind!

Now obviously, that was written by a child, and I guess it's more of an inversion than a subversion, I feel like there are a lot of trope 'subversions' that feel similarly... cheap, for lack of a better word. Badly thought out, perhaps.

I just can't think of any examples right now.

So what makes a trope subversion fall flat/ boring/ "cheap"? Examples would be nice too.

  • 9
    Less than 100 years ago, boys wore pink, and girls wore blue. – Nelson Jul 4 '19 at 1:30
  • @Nelson I heard it was related to Hitler using pink for gay men, but I should've guessed there were companies involved somewhere too – tryin Jul 4 '19 at 5:12
  • 7
    The ending of GoT is a prime example. In order to subvert expected tropes, they subverted 5 years of character building. – Davor Jul 4 '19 at 14:27
  • @Davor The Dragon Demands put it really nicely: Betrayal of someone who already trusts you is not cleverness. It only works once unless the target is exceptionally stupid or exceptionally willing to believe in you. And it seems the belief finally run out on D&D and people finally noticed the emperor had no clothes. – Matthew Dave Jul 6 '19 at 11:36
  • 1
    Basically: Anything in GoT Season 8. The difference between the early (JRR Martin) subversions and the S8 (D&D) subversion attempts is startling and shows you both how to do it and how not to do it, respectively. For example, the "hero vs. supervillain boss fight" trope got "subverted" in maybe the most idiotic way you can imagine, twice (one not giving the obvious fight and one stealing the kill by deus-ex-machina). Both feel cheap because they are forced, while things like Ned Stark losing his head in Season 1 is a subversion, but internally consistent. – Tom Jul 6 '19 at 15:49
29

I think the problem with the blue-pink subversion is that there is no clear reason why; other than the intent to surprise the reader. And secondly, it is not clear this trope subversion has any actual story consequences.

Normally, trope inversions have at least some rational reason for existing. e.g. Wonder Woman is one of the first female super-heroes (appearing 1941), but rationales are offered for subverting the 1941 tropes about women: She comes from an all-female society, so their military and defense are necessarily all female. Likewise she can be unafraid to fight, blunt and aggressive and take charge: In our society traits associated with males, but in an all-female society without gender-based roles, it would be necessary for some females to take on the roles of generals and soldiers, and there would be no stigma associated with it.

Trope inversions are generally justified in fiction, in some way. The character acts against type out of necessity, or out of upbringing or life experiences that taught them some non-typical lesson. The nerd can fight because his father made him learn to fight. The woman knows sports because her father was a coach and fanatic, and loved her, and naturally she bonded with him over the sports he watched all the time, and grew up liking them and understanding them.

One bad subversion of a trope is to declare an opposite and provide zero reasoning for it. That looks too obviously like a contrived surprise.

A second bad subversion of a trope is when it has no actual story consequences of any kind. We need our female protagonist to have a lot of sports knowledge for a story reason; perhaps this lets her solve a puzzle or understand a reference other people would miss.

Now of course, the reasons we give for a trope inversion are themselves contrived, but that second-level contrivance doesn't matter much. Or you could bury it in a third-level contrivance: Wonder Woman comes from an all-female society. But why is it all-female? If we get into reasons for that, we have a third-level contrivance, and by burying it this makes it all more plausible (since the "all-female society" sounds a little implausible).

But often just the 2nd level contrivance is sufficient, if it sounds plausible -- A father that is a sports fanatic is in keeping with a trope, with a daughter as his only child it is plausible she grows up loving sports herself, going to games, and understanding the games because in her world that is what fathers and daughters do.

Added from comments: In fiction any extreme ability (for either gender) stands out and readers expect it to matter, somehow. Failing to meet this expectation disappoints them. Fiction is not real life! To readers extreme abilities mean something, that is the psychology of reading stories. If we read that a character has superpowers, but by the end of the book has never done anything with 'em, Then why did the author give them superpowers?

Trope inversions are very similar to this; if you subvert the trope you are creating an outlier, an abnormality, something the reader does not expect and does not regard as "normal". It generally needs to be justified, and then also needs to influence the story, and the more unusual the abnormality the more influence it should have in the story.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    In the 19th century, pink baby clothes originally tended towards boys, since blue was considered daintier and reserved for girls. And, at different points in US history, it was not an indicator of the babies sex. It changes with fashion and taste. – EDL Jul 3 '19 at 19:23
  • 3
    @EDL Fine and good, but for the modern reader the trope is that pink=girl and blue=boy. I will also note, girls of all ages (or at least starting at the age they understand gender distinctions) seem to embrace and advance this trope that pink is girly and represents girl power; I see it in kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school, colleges and in workplaces. It is a recognizable trope that can be subverted, but I'd like to see a plausible reason to do it, otherwise the reader notices the trope is broken and is confused by what it "means", not realizing the answer is nothing. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 3 '19 at 19:53
  • 6
    (oversimplified) "It's not good when it doesn't affect the plot" is a commonly given advice that sounds right at first and essentially follows Checkhov's gun, but when applied to the letter it tends to end up arguing against worldbuilding. Not everything needs to be plot-important if it serves a purpose for setting the stage. Just because a character subverts a stereotype does not mean that this subversion must be essential to the plot. Sometimes, it's just a matter of writing a sufficiently fleshed out character. – Flater Jul 4 '19 at 7:39
  • 2
    @Amadeus: My point was more that just because a character does not follow a trope/stereotype, does not inherently mean you are making an intentional point about not adhering to the trope/stereotype. If anything, doing it to prove a point is usually exactly what's wrong with this (it leads to "token" characters or forced "fellow kids" injections by the writers). Why does e.g. a woman with sports knowledge (as per your example) need to explicitly prove/use their ability for story purposes? Why can't it just be a woman who happens to like sports, unrelated to the plot? – Flater Jul 4 '19 at 10:33
  • 2
    @Flater A woman can like sports, but in fiction any extreme ability stands out and readers expect it to matter, somehow, and failing to meet that expectation disappoints them. Fiction is not real life! To readers extreme abilities mean something, that is the psychology of reading stories. You might as well say she has superpowers, incidentally -- doesn't do anything with 'em though. Then why did you give her superpowers? Same thing; if a character's superpower doesn't matter, we don't make it so extreme readers expect it to matter. That's a recipe for a disappointing ending. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 4 '19 at 10:47
19

TL;DR

If it leads to new situations or fresh characters, GREAT!

If it's at the very end of the story and it's just there to pull the rug out, BAD!

Playing against types

A stereotype inversion is still only 2-dimensional. Chances are it doesn't really alter the plot much. It's probably better than the usual, but not by much, since it's still based on stereotypes and tropes.

Take for instance the trope subversion that Luke and Han are heroes who rescue Leia, a damsel in distress. The trope would be that the men go in, guns blazing with confidence, and the grateful Princess Toadstool gives them a reward from her father's treasury. But in Star Wars all the storybeats are subverted so the guys are bungling amateurs who get themselves trapped in the prison block, and she's actually some sort of ball-busting toughguy who has to rescue them.

The plot doesn't really change though. They still "rescue a princess from a tower" and escape by the seat of their pants. By the end they are regular heroes and she is a princess handing out rewards. The story is filled with moment-to-moment subversions – it's a fun ride, but the overall plot and especially the ending are 100% expected.

The unexpected ending

In contrast, every few weeks we see some variation on a question about "Can my villain win?" and the answer is always "Of course, but why, what does it add to the story and say about your world?"

In 99% of stories where the reader is expecting a Big Battle™ at the climax, the protagonist will be an underdog and the villain will be overpowered. It doesn't actually subvert anything by letting the overpowered villain win – the typical storybook ending is the subversion. The opposite of the storybook trope is "reality". It's not actually a trope subversion – it's nothing. It's normal.

It was a 2-dimensional trope before, but when the "bad guy wins" it's 1-dimensional. But the real issue is this "subversion" doesn't lead to anything. Maybe it works, but it's the ending so it can't be explored or developed. At best it's a quick gotcha, at worst it's a shaggy dog story.

Subvert All Tropes

IMO, the reason we've been hearing non-stop about "trope subversions" is they are a reaction against formulaic movie writing like the 3-Act screenplay and "Save the Cat" tells that leaves the average media-saturated human aware of what is coming. It's now an edgy trend to break the rules just to break the rules, (as opposed to 1977 when an avalanche of inverted tropes in Star Wars felt fresh and fun).

If you only look at trendy media produced by HBO and Netflix, you'd think there are no more stories, just a continuum of "story rules" that exist to be broken so the audience can experience temporary confusion, anger, and scream WTF, then go and complain about it on social media to drive show curiosity and cultural cachet. It's an Emperor's New Clothes effect where the subversion feels radical. This is a commercial decision, not a storytelling decision.

Most creative artists recommend to not chase a trend. By the time you get your trendy work published the market will be saturated with copycats, as well as the grandfathers that re-emerge from back catalogs. Publishers and readers alike will be hunting for the next new trend, which might even be a reaction against the trend you've been chasing.

It can backfire too of course. The same fanboys who worshipped Star Wars (ironically choosing to focus on it's jejune "hero's journey" aspect while ignoring the many trope inversions that make it entertaining, had a cosmic melt down over The Last Jedi's trope subversions. Now, according to Youtube analysts, audience expectations must be subverted in a specific way or you're "breaking the rules" wrongly.

The irony of that statement suggests we are already at peak trope subversions. Trope subversions are becoming a trope.

in conclusion

  • Character trope switcharoos can lead to a fresh take on old plots ("Cinderfella"), but protagonists still need arcs and narratives still need satisfying conclusions that feel like an ending.
  • If you're going to subvert the plot, do it early so an interesting narrative can come out of it. Gotcha endings are only appropriate in genres that are intended to be unsettling. They will signal that they exist in a gotcha universe – thriller, horror, weird, crime, psychological, etc.
  • Avoid (as opposed to subvert/invert) character clichés as much as possible by writing deeper, more realistic characters. A rich character with complicated motives and realistic consequences doesn't need to be subverted.

I think character is far more important to holding reader interest than subverting tropes and trying to surprise readers with the unexpected ending.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    It's kind of funny that this answer, which is good, starts with TL;DR and is maybe six times the length of the question. I am left wondering if this is an example of subverting a trope. – EDL Jul 3 '19 at 19:27
  • 2
    "If it's at the very end of the story and it's just there to pull the rug out, BAD!" >> HA! I SUBVERT! Predictable deus ex machina putting the rug back !! – monsto Jul 4 '19 at 7:28
  • @monsto "Putting the rug back!" the ultimate twist-twist ending!!! Readers will never expect it! ha! – wetcircuit Jul 4 '19 at 10:26
  • 2
    @Davor, Have you seen the Prequels? Or Return of the Jedi? Or the Christmas Special…? or The Ewok Movie…? Or Star Wars…? Most people are wondering why middle-aged men just woke up. – wetcircuit Jul 5 '19 at 9:46
  • 1
    @wetcircuit - I literally have no idea what the hell you're even trying to say. I'm not defending anything, you brought up those movies, and you're just raving now. – Davor Jul 5 '19 at 20:45
14

If you're just doing it for its own sake to bask in your own 'cleverness', it stands out like neon in a windowless room (see: The recent fallout regarding the ever-'subversive' Season 8 of Game of Thrones). Intent is a lot more transparent than people think.

If you're subverting tropes to discuss said trope, or simply because that's the story you want to tell, that will bleed through too, and come off as much better. The former example is what has a lot of post-modern artsy points.

Subverting for its own sake amounts to 'look, here's the thing that people usually do, and BAM! Now it's the other way around!'.

Subverting to discuss, however, would go more like this: 'Look, here's the thing that people usually do, but why do we usually do that? It doesn't always make sense, and especially not in the universe I'm writing. Instead, this other thing will happen.'

The difference is palpable in how it's executed.

| improve this answer | |
  • I haven't seen Season 8, but I guess much of the same applies to Star Wars: The Last Jedi? – sgf Jul 4 '19 at 10:37
  • 3
    @sgf I'd argue it's way worse, if only because of the insufferable 'Inside the Episode' skits where the writers sit down and explain their 'brilliance' (read: make excuses for their poor decisions). Any story which needs to be sat down and explained moments after does not stand on its own. – Matthew Dave Jul 4 '19 at 10:39
9

There's a danger with subverting tropes, in that you can end up giving misleading promises ... e.g. your story seems to be a romcom for the first 20 pages but then !surprise! it's a horror--well, all the people who wanted horror have not even started the story (they thought it was a romcom), and the people who started it because they wanted a romcom are now terribly dissapointed (they didn't want a horror story) ... that's a very coarse example; you can get the same kind of problem even with much more fine-grained trope-vs-subversion attempts

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I think you have some valid points but your answer may be deleted (it's on the review queue) for your opening sentence. I suggest you edit your answer to both address the question and include your points. – linksassin Jul 4 '19 at 1:06
  • I guess next time I'm arguing that nitpicking is good and somebody challenges me for an example, I could point them to this? : D ... anyway, thanks for the heads up... I performed some slight rewording which should magically fix everything : ))) – sesquipedalias Jul 4 '19 at 8:46
  • 1
    It's a frame challenge answer, nothing wrong with it that I can see. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 4 '19 at 9:14
4

There have been a lot of good answers so far. I think a few areas have been missed. So, on top of the other answers, I would add:

As Social Commentary:

Since tropes represent, in a small way, our expectations, subverting a trope can be used to put social norms in stark relief. The Star Trek episode "Let this be your Last Battlefield," featured the struggle between the only two surviving members of an entire planet engulfed in war. The reason for the conflict, when it is revealed, served to put the racial struggles of 1960's USA in a very different frame.

If this context, the dynamics of the societal property need to be preserved when the trope is subverted. Like an abusive-parent trope could be subverted to reflect abuse by excessive permissiveness rather than cruelty. But, if that was a synecdoche for a socialist government -- promising everything to everybody -- it would be challenging to make work. But, the original trope makes a good synecdoche for a totalitarian government.

As Misdirection:

If a story can seemingly rely on a trope, without clearly declaring it, then the sudden subversion can permit the story to unfold in new directions. This requires that the text of the story implies conformance with the trope, so the reader adopts it as part of their internal model of the world. Then, when it is important, the real mechanics can be revealed and the reader sees how their assumptions led to their own surprise. The 6th Sense is an example of this type of subversion of a trope.

But, if the story contains details that are dependent on the original trope, then the contract with the reader is broken and the work can feel badly done.

| improve this answer | |
  • Another example of misdirection: Barry B. Longyear wrote a story of a meeting of a bunch of men that was heavy on ceremony and references to adopting some methods from their enemies. We're meant to think it was a summit of Mafia dons, even though he drops the hint that some members weren't Italian. Surprise: these guys were the cops. – Shawn V. Wilson Jul 6 '19 at 18:17
3

One very bad way of subverting a trope is thinking you're being clever and subverting a trope only it's Dead Horse Trope and no one actually uses it straight any more. For instance, there have been instances of non-genre writers trying their hand at a genre and think they're being innovative and daring and subverting all sorts of tropes, only the tropes they've subverting aren't in use in that genre and haven't been for decades. The writer, essentially, is basing their "innovation and daring" on something they remember seeing (or worse, hearing about) decades ago which they think is an essential part of the genre, but isn't actually a thing now days.

Simplistic example: suppose an author want to try their hand at science fiction, but they only thing they remember is that the heroes were squared-jawed men of action who rescued the damsel in distress from the aliens who'd taken her for...some reason. Well, this author is going to bust the genre wide open; his hero is going to be a woman! Someone just as good in a fight and with a blaster as a man, and better then most. And, to add on to it, there will be space marines, and some of them will be women too!

Okay, sure, daring and subverting tropes...seventy years ago. I've spent literally decades with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner and Honor Harrington and any other number of badass women in genre fiction. I've seen the Adepta Sororitas fight on thousands of worlds, Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper running around the solar system, Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr running around the galaxy, and so on and so forth. In other words, the idea of Badass Action Girl isn't something new or novel in the least any more, so someone writing as if it's a new and exciting idea is almost guaranteed to suffer an epic fail.

That's probably the most common way for a trope subversion to go bad; not knowing that subverting the trope is pretty much the only time the trope even shows up at all any more.

| improve this answer | |
1

I think the best answer lies in your question. The key, to my thinking, is whether you are actually subverting the trope or whether you are simply not following it for the sake of not following it. Subversion implies that you are invalidating, mocking or demonstrating the limitations of the trope.

Why do we see tropes used so often? Because on some level they tend to work. They become tropes because they lead to interesting stories. They set reader expectations. Not meeting reader expectations is not a good thing in general. Imagine a story that begins with a scientist describing his latest creation: a super bomb with the capability to destroy an entire planet! The story is about the scientist's love life and the bomb doesn't come into it again because it was just there to show that he's a very clever guy. Well, that sucks. "Does not meet expectations" is not a phrase you want to hear when you're having a performance review at work and it's not what you want people to be saying about your story.

I don't know if you saw the movie "Kingsmen: The Secret Service". I was kind of disappointed when the main character didn't end up with Roxy, the feisty young recruit he befriended during training. So that would be an example of a trope not followed but not successfully subverted. I expected something and felt cheated when I didn't get it. On the other hand consider the original "Rocky" movie. The trope would have been if he had won at the end and become world champion. He didn't but the ending was satisfying anyway. He redeemed himself and he found things that were important to him and that meant more than a title would have.

I don't know what happened in your superhero story but imagine this: the villain wants to unmask Blue Blade. He and the reader think they've figured out that it must be the boy but then the boy and Blue Blade unequivocally show up at the same time. Then in the denouement you reveal to the reader that Blue Blade is actually the girl and the boy is Pink Pansy. This is still kind of lame but it uses the trope to set up a trick ending. The reader is led to question the assumptions that led him or her to conclude that the boy had to be Blue Blade and the girl Pink Pansy. If successful, this subverts the gender expectation trope.

One last example: "Gone With the Wind". Scarlett goes through the whole book (or movie) trying to get the wrong man: Ashley. The right man, Rhett, is pursuing her and marries her without really "getting" her. She realizes that Rhett is the right man just at the moment that he has had enough of her and is leaving. He walks out and she is left alone determined to get him back, telling herself "tomorrow is another day." So, the girl doesn't get the guy in the end and it isn't a tragedy and it's kind of a cliff-hanger and who knows what happens to Ashley and... somehow it works although seemingly all the rules have been broken. Somehow Scarlett's character has become more important to us than the usual story conventions and the ending seems more real and more true to her nature than a typical tragic or happy ending would have been.

So there you go. Make your twist more interesting than following the trope would have been. Make it worthwhile.

| improve this answer | |
  • I actually loved that eggsy and roxy didn't end up together - I find the 'mc and the only girl fall in love' trope very annoying – tryin Jul 8 '19 at 5:28
  • @tryin Well, there you go. There aren't really any absolutes here. For me it was like Chekhov's Gun. What was she there for? It didn't seem as if she contributed enough to justify her screen time. And I felt that someone with a part that big should have more of a satisfying ending than being able to cheer on the mc from a distance. – Hugh Meyers Jul 8 '19 at 9:48
  • So basically don't subvert a trope without something else to fill in the gaps that the trope would have? Maybe instead of firing Chekhov's gun the mc should throw it at the villain or something? – tryin Jul 8 '19 at 10:03
  • @tryin That’s my take on it. Luke, Han and Leia. Everyone gets a satisfying ending. Chekhov’s gun turns out to be a valuable collector’s item so instead of using it to commit suicide the mc sells it to pay off his debts. Rick puts Ilsa on the plane. Satisfying yet unexpected. – Hugh Meyers Jul 8 '19 at 11:59
0

The general problem with tropes is that they often indicate lazy writing, and since they're so shopworn, they don't tend to contribute much new, original or of value. But it doesn't have to be that way. One of the problems with the current craze for reducing everything to tropes is that it minimizes the way that you can always bring fresh new perspectives and your own writer's voice to timeless themes --something that definitely can't happen if you're only thinking of them in terms of what tropes compose them.

The problem with poorly subverted tropes is similar. The freshness they are supposed to provide is superficial and illusionary. Nothing really new or exciting is being presented. What the reader is being given is no less of a cliche, it has just been inverted in a mechanical fashion (Girls in blue! Boys in pink!).

The better way to subvert tropes, I would submit, is not to focus on them at all. If you find yourself writing something that you've seen or read a hundred times already in someone else's book, that you could write in your sleep, and that any other person could come in and fill in the details for you, throw it out, and find something more interesting, that won't be as much of a waste of everyone's time. But other than that, leave the trope-hunting for the readers and critics. There are fewer bigger warning signs for me than when someone deliberately describes their plotline in language taken straight from TV Tropes.

| improve this answer | |
-1

I'd honestly vote to close the question as opinion-based, but since it's attracted some answers, I'd demonstrate why by disagreeing.

  • "Villain" victories and hero-designated villain team-ups are awesome. Readers shop for stories in which heroic characters win -- if they did, stories would be advertized by their denouements. They should root for the heroic person to win within the confines of the fictional world while they're immersed in it, and your job here is to craft a character they'd sympathize with.

  • "Hero defeats villain" is not a subversion, it's normal. It doesn't matter that the villain's power is over 9001, the hero's status as the protagonist also figures into the prediction model, and readers are very much aware of it. "Villains" winning is not the norm in real life either, because when they do, the predominant media narrative will not present them as such.

  • You do not need an excuse to "subvert" sexist stereotypes. The notion that a woman needs to be initiated by a man into consuming the product of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry is horribly sexist and demeaning.

  • Subversions or not, character-building details don't have to have story consequences beyond the immediate and obvious. If a character goes out to buy milk, s/he doesn't need to later win a drinking contest against the lactose-intolerant villain. If, in the beginning of a story, a girl was returning from baseball practice and saw a trail of blood, she does not need to kill the monster with a baseball bat in the end. Chekhov's Gun is not a law of writing fiction, it's a rule for play- and screenwriting which simply says to not be a backseat director.

  • Genre "subversions" are awesome. Romcom to horror and vice versa are established tropes. There are people who like both; more importantly, there are fans of that particular niche that a writer might want to occupy. You're not writing a genre, you're writing for an audience. A good marketer will know to sell your tragic love story of pre-Adamite horrors to fans of the tragic love story of malfunctioning AIs on an abandoned spaceship.

Edgy blue girl / fluffy pink boy is not bad by itself, it's bad in the current media context, as there's a glut of (bad) stories trying to get sold on the supposed originality and moral superiority of boldly "subverting" already outdated, tasteless and unused tropes. Those have gone the way of rickrolling, Erin Esurance, and Windows ME, and trying to look clever and original by subverting one marks the author as horribly out of touch with the real world. It would have been fine back when you were in 5th grade.

| improve this answer | |
  • "...it's bad in the current media context, as there's a glut of (bad) stories trying to get sold on the supposed originality and moral superiority of boldly "subverting" already outdated, tasteless and unused tropes" <- +1 for that. – tryin Jul 4 '19 at 11:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.