Writers today are often told that they absolutely have to subvert audience expectations in order to tell a compelling story. Notably, those who insist that authors do this never give a truly compelling case for why this has to be done with every single tale they tell. Most disturbingly, these advisers never say just where an author ought to stop subverting the generally recognized tropes, cliches, and formulae of the genre(s) in which they have chosen to specialize.
In the video below, fiction critic Literature Devil breaks down how the Disney Star Wars Trilogy focused too much on subverting audience expectations and not enough on telling a good story. He also discusses the fact that unbridled enthusiasm for this writing path harms not only the authors who adhere to it, but to the viewers/readers whom they are trying to win over.
Whether you love the Disney trilogy or not, it must be admitted that the creators behind the films are rather erratic. There are glaring inconsistencies throughout the sequel trilogy, and the characterization for the protagonists and antagonists is beyond sub par in many cases. It is not surprising, then, that when asked if they would return for another Star Wars film, several actors laughed and dodged the question.
Literature Devil’s video explains why subverting the tropes, themes, and characterizations established in the Star Wars franchise led to these contradictions. What he should also have done, in this author’s opinion, was include a definition of subvert. Per the ever-handy Merriam Webster Dictionary, subvert means: “to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.; to make (something) weaker or less effective.” It also means “to overturn or overthrow from the foundation: ruin; 2: to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith.”
Many of subvert’s synonyms reflect this definition. Words such as abase, cheapen, demoralize, undermine, sabotage, and debase all reflect this urge to destroy. Subverting an audience’s expectations, therefore, is not necessarily a method by which an author may elevate, ennoble, uplift, or enlighten his readers/viewers. More often than not, its main point is to do the exact opposite.
Does this mean a writer has to adhere to the formulae and tropes Literature Devil describes exactly? Allow me to respond with another question: Do ten cooks told to make a dish of spaghetti have to use the same ingredients?
The short answer, of course, is no. While cooking the spaghetti will require water and noodles, the chefs in question are free to choose which type of noodles they want. They may also season them any way they wish. One may use butter and spices, while another may use cheese and broccoli. A third may use tomato sauce and mushrooms, and so on down the line.
Cooking the same meal does not require the chef to follow the directions or his fellows exactly. Why, then, would writing a story require adhering to the rules in such an unimaginative manner? Obviously, it would not. Nor would it require the cook to completely ignore the rules in order to make a fantastic dish – especially since doing so is likely to result in an inedible mess.
The same can be said of storytelling. A pattern is a guide, not a chain or a prison. You can weave new threads into the sample and cut out old ones as you go. Subversion does not make a tale unique. It is the writer and his particular interpretation of the tropes, cliches, and formulae that create truly memorable pieces.
Keep that in mind, future authors, and you are already half way home.
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