Subversive Storytelling: Making Your Story Surprising

Subversive Storytelling: Making Your Story Surprising | Liberty Falls Down

I used to be one of those people that watched the extra features of every DVD I bought. I’d pay extra money for the special features on what we affectionately came to call the ‘geek disc’. You know the sort – documentaries about what it was like to shoot the film, how the special effects were done, interviews with the cast, deleted scenes.

I don’t bother so much these days – I’m not really interested – but I do remember one really interesting special featurette. It was on Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and someone from the team that made the movie was talking about why it was a good story. Say what you like about the state of the Pirates franchise now, but the first film was good – and I remember the central idea that they talked about in the featurette, the ingredient that made it the film it was.

I can’t remember who was doing the talking, but whoever it was talked about pirate stories, and how they wanted to do something out of the ordinary – something that hadn’t been done before. So what they did was take something central to a pirate story and flip it on its head. The entire Pirates film stemmed out of the question – what would happen if the Pirates wanted to give the gold back?

Subverting a common trope

What if the pirates wanted to give the gold back? It’s a brilliant idea – it takes a central ingredient of the pirate mythos, that pirates are after gold and treasure, and turns it completely on its head. It makes anything that follows much more fresh and interesting than if it had been following tired old tropes.

It’s an idea that you might be able to use to spice up a story. If what you’re writing is starting to sound like every other novel in X genre ever, why not take a central idea and turn it on its head.

Romance is particularly prone to tropes. To a certain extent, readers expect them. It’s why romance can be formulaic. Readers want something specific – they want to see characters struggle to get together but ultimately reach their happily ever after, and there are perceived rules and restrictions that have to be adhered to along the way.

But take 50 Shades of Grey. I think one of the reasons it caught the imagination of so many is because it subverted the romance genre. ‘Dashing billionaire meets naive young girl’ is a really, really common romance trope. But what if the dashing billionaire had a sexual predilection that could be perceived as intimidating, or even frightening to heroine? Only for her to discover through sexual exploration, bondage and deep connection and love that she achieves a greater sense of self. Or, at least, that’s what it would have been if 50 Shades had been a bit better written.

So, if you’re feeling your work is a bit stale, lacking the vigour and fizz of something new and exciting, ask yourself:

Is there a central idea in this story – a trope or convention that readers expect from this genre – that can be turned on its head?

You don’t want to stray too far out of the constraints of your genre that it becomes something else entirely, but what can you change to make your ideas fresh and interesting?

No one told a story about pirates giving back their gold before. What unique twist on an old tale are you going to tell?


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