By: Taylor Simonds
A well-known concept when it comes to books in general expressed by novelist John Gardner is the idea that there are only two types of stories: 1) a man goes on a journey, or 2) a stranger comes to town.
Then, there’s the idea of the “seven basic plots,” as expressed by Christopher Booker’s work of the same name: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.
The message of these types of assertions is clear—that every story has been told before in some capacity—and so is the challenge that accompanies it: How do you make a story that will always fall into a recognizable narrative pattern fresh?
This challenge only gets more complicated when the topic of genre tropes comes into question. From the hardboiled detectives of crime fiction to the “And there was only one bed!” moment in YA romance, it can sometimes feel like all stories are constructed out of repetitive, predictable building blocks. The narrative voice, the order of events, and the details may differ, but the playing pieces the author is using to create the board of whatever genre they’re working in are the same. Even the word “trope” brings to mind the idea that the archetype or scene in question is something trite and overused, something that the author should avoid at all costs if they want to be truly creative—and this is definitely one valid approach. However, today I want to talk about taking the opposite approach: being aware of genre tropes and incorporating them into your world-building in order to effectively subvert audience expectations.
One of the best and most prominent examples of this approach can be found throughout George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which broke the mold on high fantasy books by setting up, then tearing down everything readers have come to expect from this (often extremely oversaturated, predictable) genre. High fantasy is a familiar game, and so are the pieces used to play it: There is typically a strong protagonist for the reader to support and relate to; the theme often addresses the struggles of good versus evil; we expect to find battles and dragons and lost princesses and evil queens. For most of the first installment in this series, A Game of Thrones, Martin lulls his readers into a false sense of security by carefully placing each one of these familiar pieces up on his board: We root for noble, righteous, kind Ned Stark, we mistrust the antagonistic, conniving Lannisters, we recognize the lost princess trope in sweet, exiled Danaerys. We can identify the characters that have existed in high fantasy books for as long as they’ve been written, and we use this recognition to inform us on who is good, who is bad, and who will win. There is no uncertainty as to whether or not good will win, merely in how they will win, because that is how we expect books to work. Then, Martin topples this certainty by causing his characters to obey one simple rule of his own making: All actions have realistic consequences.
The “plot armor” that normally protects likable characters from their mistakes does not exist. Ned Stark dies, and it doesn’t take much reading further into the series to discover that there are not actually any heroes or villains here—there are only complex characters with goals that conflict with each other (except for Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, of course, who are just inarguably the worst). This complexity and uncertainty is what makes the series feel fresh and unpredictable when compared with many other high fantasy works.
In writing my debut, Collateral Damage, for another example, I attempted to re-examine the tropes that frequent superhero stories—the invincible yet humanized hero, the New York City-esque city in need of protection, fridging the love interest, dead parents, the villain who wants to take over the world, themes of self-doubt and acceptance of responsibility, etc. Most importantly, it is typically a given that superhero stories follow, you know, the actual superheroes. So instead, I flipped the narrative perspective to a cynical background extra with no powers, which created a satirical lens to set up these common genre archetypes through, then toppled the expectations set up by utilizing those tropes in the first place. The perfect, invincible superhero is killed and his body is found by the bewildered, powerless background extra, who is reluctantly roped into the “main plot” when she attempts to solve his murder.
All genres have these game pieces—character archetypes, narrative tropes, scenes, and settings that oversaturation has led readers to expect from the books they read. But using game pieces that are easy to recognize doesn’t mean that the story itself has to fall into a trite pattern. When you find yourself confronted with a fear of falling into genre tropes and archetypes, instead think about the effect their existence has on reader expectations. Taking advantage of these expectations is what can turn stories that initially feel familiar into something unique, fresh, and unpredictable.