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The Issue

I'm a person who likes to take things apart to see how they work, and someone who likes to poke holes in ideas. As a result, it's not surprising that I've always been drawn to a writing style that likes to deconstruct* plot elements and look at their implications.

However, at the same time I've become very aware of some of the downsides of deconstructive tendencies in writing. Perhaps the biggest one is that, unless you're very very careful, deconstructions run the risk of being not fun to read. A lot of fiction is about escapism or providing hope to people (e.g., the superhero or romance genres), and a lot of times deconstructing those stories means telling the readers why their escapism and hope is bad or morally inconsistent. It's the equivalent of telling someone trying to enjoy a hamburger how they're a bad person for eating it, or that it's full of trans fats, or describing in detail how much the cow suffered as they try to enjoy their meal, basically being a total buzzkill. Which is bad if the promises of the genre are to entertain the reader.

The other problem is that deconstructions are fundamentally destructive, because they're about taking things apart. However, the problem is if you are too harsh in your deconstruction, you end up killing or crippling the story because no one can ever enjoy it again. Sort of like what Watchmen did to superheroes or Neon Genesis Evangelion did to giant robots: the genre sort of recovered but its optimism and idealism were completely lost and the works left a permanent scar.

Indeed, I heard this said in relation to Watchmen, which described the situation very well: Deconstruction is like surgery or dissection. You can take apart something fully to understand how it works, but to do so you end up killing the subject, and you can't stitch the dissected parts back again and expect it to be alive. If you want your subject to remain alive by the end of the procedure, you must restrain from dissecting it fully.

Deconstruction can be good; indeed, any new work must subvert at least some elements of its predecessors to avoid telling the same stories (e.g., Spider-Man subverted a lot of the superhero tropes that were common up until its time), but overdoing it results in a work that no one wants to read. E.g., I noted that if I really wanted to take apart the genre I'm working with I'd have to make several decisions that would result in a story full of unlikable people doing unsympathetic things, and ultimately lead to a nihilistic tragedy that leaves the audience depressed and unsatisfied. That's bad.

The Case Study

The use of the Masquerade trope in fiction, i.e. the old idea about having a secret world filled with magic and stuff kept hidden from the "muggles". The psychological reasons why a masquerade appeals to readers are fairly clear (it makes the story feel more "real" if it is set in ostensibly our world, and it makes the readers feel like they are special to be let in on a secret that no one else knows), but the problem is that the trope is so flimsy there is no way it could remain hidden.

More specifically:

  • The only way the masquerade could reasonably be maintained is if the people maintaining it engaged in cold-blooded murder of innocents. There would always be some people who had a bad encounter with the supernatural, demonstrable proof of their encounter, and a strong enough moral compass who could never be convinced or coerced into keeping a secret. Memory wiping spells or technology wouldn't be enough because there would be surviving physical evidence (photos/writings/video) and big chunks of time missing. If someone who has been in contact with the supernatural for years gets memory wiped, do they lose years of their memory?
  • Sometimes use of a government coverup is used (e.g., the MIB in Men in Black), but this creates a broader issue in that such a thing would leave an obvious paper trail and if the secret is worldwide competing nations would never agree to keep such a thing secret, instead deliberately breaking the masquerade in the hopes that the resulting chaos destabilizes their geopolitical rivals. E.g., the USSR or U.S. revealing that the supernatural exists to try and destabilize the other during the Cold War.
  • Similarly, the secret societies in these stories (from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the Masquerade in Vampire: The Masquerade) are often horrendously corrupt or barbaric, and people are often forced to join them (e.g., turned into a supernatural, or the commonly used Call to Adventure in most urban fantasies like The Mortal Instruments). This kind of society is almost guaranteed to produce disgruntled individuals with no desire to uphold the status quo and have nothing to lose, and hence nothing to stop them wanting to see the whole system burn out of spite. Made worse by the fact that their very existence can be used to break the masquerade, all they have to do is start performing supernatural feats on live television in front of a sizeable audience. Notably, while in some cases like Vampire: The Masquerade the protagonists are supposed to be monsters, in many cases this same situation arises with characters or groups that are supposed to be seen as heroic, sympathetic, or otherwise non-monstrous, in worlds that are not supposed to be nihilistic and depressing (e.g., Harry Potter).

All of this suggests that the "best" way to deconstruct this trope is to engineer a situation where a character is shanghaied into a supernatural world, only to watch the so-called "good guys" perform increasingly worse actions to maintain secrecy to demonstrate how maintaining a masquerade would require people to take monstrous actions, then have the brutality and misery of the supernatural world take their toll on the character until they snap and go on a rampage attempting to break the masquerade. The character is at the bottom rung of supernatural society despite being drawn into it against their will, and hence they want to take everyone with them and have nothing to lose. This is also because people find tragedy more memorable than happy endings (i.e., humans are wired to recognize danger). The best way to show how unworkable a masquerade is would be to show how it causes nothing but suffering and misery yet its actions are utterly futile to maintain the status quo. This would be the logical conclusion of a masquerade (or rather, one of several, but all involve mass suffering and death in ways that aren't friendly to any sense of optimism).

The Problem

I don't want to write a story like this. This proposed story is nothing but awful people doing awful things to other people in an awful world. There's no reason for the reader to want to read it, especially twice. I like writing about sympathetic and heroic individuals doing things that show their inner positive humanity, and settings that have a light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, due to the cynical, nihilistic, and deconstructive way I view things, I keep noticing holes in my own premise that if followed to their logical conclusion result in endless suffering and misery, and make my intended-to-be sympathetic characters (and not in an "evil but understandable" like Walter White) into evil jerks. It basically shames readers for trying to enjoy their escapist fantasy and tries to leave a bad taste in their mouth.

This is bad because I don't want to "kill" the tropes and genre I'm working with, I'm taking it apart because I love it. In theory what one is supposed to do is reconstruct the parts in a better format, but few do this and I myself have noticed that I'm really good at tearing apart why something won't work, but can't offer any constructive ideas as to what to replace it. And this often makes my own writing sometimes unenjoyable because I'm poking holes in the story as I'm writing it rather than letting myself (or the reader) enjoy the ride.

Deconstruction is useful, but if you're inclined to do nothing but deconstruct you end up with a very demotivating, uninteresting writing style. How does one go about writing a good, interesting story and break the habit of "must deconstruct everything" such that it is possible to produce a story that people find worth reading. Especially if the author is naturally drawn to deconstruct things.

"*" Note, I'm using deconstruction and deconstructivist here to point out the style of writing where authors point out logical contradictions, plot holes, and unintended consequences of certain tropes or broader genre conventions. I know that there are supposedly a couple of conflicting definitions for literary deconstructions floating around and am mentioning this to avoid confusion.

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    I think your question would benefit from a few examples of how you deconstruct in your stories.
    – Manuki
    Jul 19 at 11:55
  • Your final paragraph confused me. Do you mean to say that the characters in your book are reflecting on errors in the content of the book itself? I'd certainly need an example to get your meaning.
    – AnoE
    Jul 19 at 14:57
  • I think you're seriously overestimating your ability to deconstruct things for others, or ruining their enjoyment. Saying that "the genre [of superhero films] hardly recovered" after Watchmen is laughed at in the face by e.g. the Avengers being the highest-grossing franchise of all time. Jul 19 at 19:57
  • @Carl-FredrikNybergBrodda Not claiming that I have some ability to do something well but rather the opposite: I fear being so incompetent it ends up being damaging by mistake. The concern isn't the harming of a genre but making a work which nit-picks its premise so much as its trying to tell the story the story itself becomes unenjoyable to read. Jul 19 at 20:14
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    I feel obligated to point out that Undertale is an utterly ruthless deconstruction of RPG tropes, and is also one of the most hopeful and optimistic games I have ever played. Maybe try deconstructing cynical ideas instead of deconstructing idealistic ones?
    – Kevin
    Jul 19 at 22:19
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In other words, when you are making a mistake, the first thing to do is to stop. Then consider....

that if you enjoy the stories that you write and feel they are what you want to express in your art, then you don't have a problem.

but if you don't enjoy your stories because you feel you've gone overboard with your deconstructionismocitiness then you'll be very happy to learn that writers invented a solution for that.

It's called revision.

It is one of the most important skills to learn as a writer. You read your story, and identify the parts that aren't working and try to make them better. That identifying the parts that aren't working is actually very challenging and is part of another important skill required to be a good writer called critical analysis -- or at least that is what I call it.

It's that skill to look at any piece of writing and work out what a particular sentence or paragraph or whatever contributes to the story as a whole from a reader's perspective. And, the reader is the most important component of any story. Without a reader, the story has no purpose, so as Vonnegut said, "Take Pity on the Reader." Even when you are the only reader of your writing, its best to be kind to yourself and work to write things that after appropriate levels of revision that you enjoy reading.

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Vivisection: Body Horror or Anatomical text?

The critical thing in a story is to tell a great story. Period.

Okay, that doesn't sound complete. Kind of like over-deconstructing. If you read what literary agents SAY they're looking for, it's often a literary fiction take on whatever genre they follow. Deconstruction fits well with the literary tradition, which has deep character development and a lot of internalization and analysis.

There's nothing wrong with that. People LIKE to have their assumptions challenged sometimes. It can end up taking your writing in a very publishable direction. If your deconstruction is poking fun at traditional tropes, or making a stand on people's rights, challenging stereotypes, or patriarchal culture. Getting at the underlying assumptions of these issues and challenging them is what a lot of agents are hungry for.

But at the same time, that critical first statement I gave reigns supreme. Writing a great novel is writing a great story.

A writer who loses track of the great story to overanalyze the whys and wherefores won't get published. You won't even get past beta reading, unless your mom is doing it (and that doesn't count). So have a REALLY great story planned to exhibit the things you are deconstructing. Make sure every element you pry apart adds to the plot and characters, and causes you reader to love the characters and ache for the inequities of the world they live in. They should see their own society in every pried-apart seam of the culture.

If not, then you better have an English degree and write a dry text about the nature of neo-cyberpunk culture in literature and it's impact on the socioeconomic implications of modern global trade policy.

  • PS: Okay, in re-reading, the TONE of this came off a bit grumpy (sorry) but the underlying point is solid. Unless you're a big-name author (and even then)you need the story to be the critical thing. Everything else just informs it. -DWK
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    That's a good point. Asker mentioned Watchmen: arguably it succeeded because underneath all the the satire, dystopia and deconstruction, there's a solid, well-paced detective mystery with exciting twists and well-developed, relatable characters, which those elements complement by adding tension, showing characters' vulnerability before a dramatic twist, etc etc. Problems come when those elements distract from or weaken the plot, or are the "big idea" instead of a strong plot. Jul 20 at 11:50
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Consider writing comedy by deconstructing and making fun of the tropes. Terry Pratchet may be a good example, although you do not have to be that focused on nonsense and instead just using humorous dissections to make for a slightly more interesting read.

Alternatively you can use it for a kind of gritty vibe: Have your characters expect the trope and fight (and succeed?) the problems that arise when the trope does collide with reality.

I suggest short stories in the beginning: Deconstruct exactly one trope per story. That will train you to construct something new and interesting from your dissections.

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I'm not sure I agree that your examples point to a problem with deconstruction in general, and so I'm not sure you have a problem. Yes, you can definitely subvert expectations too much (see Game of Thrones after season 5), but I don't see that Watchmen or NGE destroyed their genres. I don't follow comics, but Marvel superhero films are more upbeat than ever. DC's movies are darker but I think they're trying to be different from Marvel, not emulate Watchmen.

As for NGE, the big robot genre has absolutely recovered; Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was a major success and has basically all of the classic mecha tropes. So was Full Metal Panic, and at least two more Gundam installments. Further, deconstructing the mecha genre wasn't Anno's goal in NGE, it was his method to reach that goal. Anno was upset at how many anime fans were getting sucked into escapism and withdrawing from the real world. That's why he deconstructed the genre, not just because he wanted to deconstruct anything and just happened to pick that. He wanted fans to apply the life lessons Shinji learned to their own lives and start actually living. He didn't want to just sell DVD's or whatever.

I think that's the crux of the situation, you don't decide to deconstruct something then wonder how to make it good, that's how you get Game of Thrones Season 8. Instead you find a social ill that bothers you and address it by deconstructing a related genre.

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Speaking as a fellow-deconstructivist here, I agree that the purpose of deconstructing a concept (or in many cases an object) is to understand its workings. Therefore, if the purpose of your story is to leave the reader with a fuller understanding of anything - even if that's a fictional event, a system of magic you made up, or a genre - that is where your deconstruction is key. Any deconstruction not centered around that core concept will end up detracting from the purpose of the work.

From your question, you mention it's a genre you love, but that you feel it necessary to break free from the tropes and cliches of that genre. By definition, books within a genre share some defining characteristics; therefore any book written in a genre (any genre) can be considered cliched to some small extent, because it shares the characteristics of that genre. Your problem therefore is to work out which parts of your chosen genre are necessary defining features, and which can be dispensed with or bent around a little - and your choice in that will be uniquely yours and that's what will set your work apart in its genre. Of course, depending on how much your work bends the rules, you'll probably encounter the fine line between evolving the genre forward in some way, and breaking out of it altogether.

You acknowledge that breaking something down 'kills' it - this is true of any genre, for example historical fiction doesn't generally delve too deeply into the motives, causes and so forth of the history, and readers are happy to accept that history and move with it. You should treat your 'defining' genre tropes in the same way; accept that they're constant if maybe imperfect, and use them anyway.

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I see two solutions.

  1. Exercise some restraint. You can still deconstruct somewhat. You can make the reader aware that you are not naive, that you are aware of the tradition of the genre so that the plot decisions are conscious. Such a text cannot be read as pure escapism any longer but it can still be fun because the reader relates not only to the characters but also to the author. Examples are Fleabag or Deadpool who talk to the audience a lot, or the films of Wes Anderson who makes it clear that his films are artificial creations. Nonetheless they are enjoyable. Because the characters and the stories are not based on a "lie" of realism they are perhaps even more enjoyable — as creations — than naive heroes, at least to anybody more than seven years old.

  2. If you don't want to end up destroying all that's nice about a super hero by deconstructing him deconstruct a villain! That should have the opposite effect. Classic villains are at least as stereotypical as their heroic counterparts, perhaps more so because even less time is traditionally spent on their character development. Let them reflect: "I know I'm supposed to kill them now but I'm so sick and tired of always doing what I'm supposed to do, the same stupid thing over and over again as if I didn't have a brain, I'll show them ..."

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