Subversion: The Storyteller’s Great White Whale

Hello, readers mine! Here I sit, once more, with the chance to write something on the blog, and what better something to write about than subversion? It’s a topic creators of all stripes can stand to learn about, from musicians to artists, but most of all writers. Whether you’re a novelist or a tabletop Dungeon Master, a screenwriter or a poet, subversion’s buzzwordy allure can be great. Today might just be the day I enlighten you about it…

… if not for the fact this post is actually about the relative merits of ETC cannons versus magnetic railguns in armored combat, with an eye both to overall reliability and its implications for long-term performance in contrast to sheer striking power at the expense of–

Yes, I know, I ran with that joke much longer than I should have. But at day’s end, it was a joke, and if offensive, only in the sense that it was overworked unto agony. It’s past us now. We’ve lost nothing in the long term by it, no opportunities have been sealed off, and I may now actually write to you about subversion.

Let’s review one possible definition, this being for the word’s use as a noun: “the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.” This seems like a prime time to mention that before the current era, a popular use of “subversion” was to refer to possible Communist subversion of the U.S. government, which amuses me because we’ve always done a grand job of subverting ourselves instead.

Let’s move on before my inner socialist starts a revolution. That would also be subversion of the post, but I made a more original version of that joke in the opening anyway. Now, at first glance, it may seem odd that this term has come to refer almost exclusively to creative works. I believe it’s deeply, sadly appropriate. Let me tell you the first, foremost truth about subversion in your writing:

It’s easy as hell. You demonstrate no special skill whatsoever by using it, and many writers use subversion to draw attention away from mediocre or outright garbage plots and characters. It is much, much harder to tell a consistent story and still be surprising than it is to sacrifice a strong, focused narrative and well-developed characters for shock value and cheap twists.

In other words, it’s much harder to be a good writer than a bad one. Thanks, North, you literary genius–you really blew the doors off that vault of truth there, sweetling.

Really, though, I discovered early in my screen-coverage work that the writers who focused most on subversion were almost always those with the least of value to offer. Let’s refer to that definition again. If we’re referring to a story, then what are power and authority? What’s the system or institution?

In order: the momentum and emotion your narrative creates. The same, as well as the gravitas and audience investment, which characters acquire through their actions in and reactions to that narrative. The system, the institution, is the ever-mightier cycle characters and plot create in harmony with each other, the gathering typhoon that is storytelling itself.

Was that a little grandiose, maybe? Did I risk letting you see my flaws as a writer by lingering on that explanation so much? Sure! Yet I bet you felt far more when I referred to storytelling as a “gathering typhoon” than if I threw out a petty quip or just gave up on explaining anything and tried to throw in so many twists that you became confused enough to believe you were excited.

Which, I should mention, does not work. I have read pieces a thousand times more confusing than any of you will ever manage. I can think of at least three so bizarre that minutes after I closed my feedback on them, I could not have told you with certainty that these weren’t fever dreams.

Let’s consider the distinction between subversion and deconstruction, because much of the problem here comes from writers trying–whether they realize it or not–to do deconstruction’s work with subversion’s methods. Deconstruction is defined as: “a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.”

Oh, volley-fire and damnation, what does any of that lingual tumult mean?

Allow me to offer my translation: deconstruction refers to the ways that we look at human language and writing so as to understand the common threads, the shared thinking, which affect them both. In fantasy, for example, deconstruction means looking at the older myths and legends which built the genre, at the explanations past writers left us about their goals for it. Barthes can get stuffed, Death of the Author doesn’t do anyone any good if we swear off power over our writing while we’re still working on it.

A writer heavily invested in deconstruction might delve deep into the heroic traditions which carried forth from the Greeks right into contemporary fantasy, striving to understand how social expectations and the changing world caused these heroes to mutate, and eventually come to the conclusion that heroes are a well-intended but maladaptive character archetype who reassure readers at the expense of conditioning them to wait on a single semi-divine savior who, let’s be frank, will never exist.

“North,” you may be thinking, “I sure hope you didn’t bring us here just to tell us how smart you are, you snide jerkoff.”

Indeed, I did not, though of course those example paragraphs are just a summary of what I often do here on the blog. Here’s what I mean when I write that too many writers try to use subversion for deconstruction’s purpose. Subversion can be effective as a moment to moment tool, which we’ll discuss at the end of the post, but the wider the scale you use it on, the less it helps you. Subversion is, by definition, throwing out what you’ve already built.

Deconstruction, by its nature, works with a broad swath of material and breaks it down to fundamentals which can then be repaired, reassembled, discarded, or–key point!–left intact if they’re still working as intended. Subversion is a C4 charge. Deconstruction is an artificer’s workshop straight out of Fifth Edition DnD.

Let’s discuss the obvious: A Song of Ice and Fire versus A Game of Thrones, especially Season 8. The exact storytelling faults at play there have been bled dry, so just hop on Youtube and look for one of the many justifiably-enraged video essays and enjoy that for a while. That whole mess, though, can be seen as evolving from the fundamental misunderstanding I refer to above. Martin’s work, at its best, is deconstructive. Not every point made in his books is anathema to the fantasy tradition.

On the contrary, Martin thrives when he draws attention to–surprise surprise–patterns established in older stories which make little sense because they throw out the rules of the world and the expected dynamics of character to surprise readers. Patterns, in short, which are subversive. This surprised us at first, of course, because of the baggage we brought to the series from other fantasy works. Baggage, and this is a key point, which the books only ever tried to reduce rather than add to.

In its worst bits A Song of Ice and Fire is just a slog of futile misery without a visible point or goal–A Dance With Dragons has no central, unifying conflict, which is why it feels so lacking in energy–but at its best it always relies on the distinction between the readers’ expectations and those which would be logical within its own world. It’s actually one of the least subversive series ever written because it follows its own rules fanatically; you’re only subverted if you expect it to act as other fantasy works do.

Now, that works because Martin still retained fantasy tropes and fundamentals where they made sense–usually. The exceptions would require getting into a separate chat about how an author’s knowledge base necessarily limits their ability to deconstruct, though, which is a topic for another time. With all this in mind, when Benioff and Weiss decided to “subvert expectations” in Martin’s universe, the above meant that they were subverting the audience’s expectations that fantasy tropes would be taken apart in satisfying ways.

You may be aware this was what everyone praised the series for. It was the main draw for many, myself included. And yes, I still feel dumb for binge-reading the books just a year before the series’ reputation was annihilated by sustained orbital bombardment.

If you look at the events of Season 8, they work on the same underlying logic as many conventional high fantasy tales, but are of course incoherent because Martin’s world was written in direct opposition to that logic. That dissonance is never addressed. Ideas and themes have more potency than power, be it political or physical, in Season 8. Characters achieve results based on the points that can be made via those characters achieving those results, not whether the rules of the world and existing narrative make them a good fit to do so.

As I said, this point has been done to death, so here’s my new contribution: deconstruction is an approach of which subversion is often an important subset. You can use that artificer’s workshop to make C4 or your nearest fantastical equivalent if the campaign setting’s science is at that level. However, you can’t use the Fantasy-4 (F4?) to build a fine set of steampunk tables and chairs which arrange and stack themselves based on the number of guests you’ll receive tonight.

And if you plant that F4 all over your workshop just to see the explosions, don’t be surprised when you don’t have a way to build anything else. There’s not some special kind of F4 that will de-explodify your gadgets–subversion can only destroy, same as that Alt-F4 you’ve pressed together.

I’ve said this countless times and I’ll say it countless more: if you elevate any single piece of a story above the others at all times, you will have a bad story. Good writers prioritize approaches, not individual mechanics. You can be deconstructive or holistic (these approaches work well together, in fact), classical or avant-garde, satirical or heartfelt, and others besides. These all refer to overall frames of mind into which every component of a story can fit. You can no more fit a whole story into the mechanic of subversion than you can into the main character’s ability to stab people.

Even Conan had a character arc, people.

“But North, what if I work the subversion into the narrative from the start, dropping Red Herrings all over the place?” A valiant effort, imaginary writer inserted so I have an easy point to argue against, but worse than useless. If you set up story elements to be subversive, be they character arcs which you’ll later reveal were fake or events that turn out not to matter or worldbuilding that turns out to be empty rumormongering, you’re wasting your own time and your audience’s on two fronts.

First, there’s the subversion itself when it comes, the moment when you blow apart everything built up to that point. The more you’ve built, the more you waste. I don’t think that needs more explanation. More even than this, you will miss or be forced to pass up many opportunities for substantive character and story development through the things you could have written in place of all that false buildup.

Your players, upon reaching the dingy heap of stones and old ferns wherein lives the orcish berserker Kreth Fleshmonger, will not say “Wow, I’m so impressed that you deliberately mislead us for the last five sessions!” when you reveal that, despite you having literally shown memories from the ghosts of his victims in which he peeled them apart layer by layer, he is actually not a murderer and is in fact a very nice person. While being named Kreth Fleshmonger.

They will say, “First off, it’s really easy for you to lie to us when you’re our only source of information about the world, so thanks for abusing our trust, and secondly, then why do you still expect us to talk to this rando fuckwad when there’s someone out there who murdered fifty people in the last month?” Actually, tabletop players in this situation will say quite a bit more than just that, but we don’t have time for it, so let’s move on.

I do not know how to say this differently, so: there is nothing wrong with giving your audience what they expect when they’re expecting precisely what you told them to. Payoff is a key storytelling concern for a reason. Ahem. I digress.

If we’re looking at a novel or a screenplay, or indeed another scenario from the same imagined campaign setting, you won’t wow anyone or leave them with a good story when the heroes discover that Goodwife Siobhan, the kindly mother of a rascally pack in the village of Glenweg, the one woman who always springs to the rescue with anything an ailing family may require, the supporting character the party have leaned on from the start, is actually a sociopathic killer who hates her children and her husband. The more subversive you make this, the more infuriating it’ll be.

“No, you see, Siobhan actually only baked treats for you every time you visited and used her dabblings in eldritch lore to help you strike a deal with Lithrtsh so that you wouldn’t suspect anything,” you say. I’m sorry, yes, I know, none of you would do this unless it was one of those days. Don’t worry, we all have them–sometimes you just write some stupid bullshit, and I can could come up with another phrase, but let’s be frank: that bullshit is stupid.

The only shame is in sticking to your stupid bullshit so fanatically that you rework your entire identity as a writer around it. Anyway, let’s pretend you’re having such a day–all the investment in Siobhan’s character is wasted. The emotions your players or readers or whatnot developed towards her up to this point, all those warm fuzzies and that sense of certainty the Goodwife provided, are in direct opposition to the emotions we feel about sociopathic killers: righteous fury, the desire for justice or more likely for retribution, et cetera.

These things most likely cancel each other out. Again, subversion is a bomb: impressive in the moment that it happens, but if the crater is huge enough to be impressive too, there probably won’t be anyone left to appreciate it. Right here at what you thought would be the big bang, the spectacular twist, you instead leave everyone with… nothing.

So, I’ve said plenty about why using subversion as an overall goal is foolhardy and why I want you to stop doing it. I also stated it could be important, though, and after all this you may be wondering how it could be possibly be worth the risk. Harken to me, my children, and I shall explain.

Let’s refer to the above examples. The encounter with Kreth doesn’t work because the existing facts have been pushed too far for willing suspension of disbelief to survive when we’re told he’s not the murderer. His bizarre rock-shack-thing is situated in a crag-network whose ravines and pathways have openings to reach every single murder. Kreth’s home is at the central point between all the killings. If he’s not the murderer, then there’s no reason for this to be the case because it’s not like he has any other characteristics that would make him worth framing. Anyway, why include him?

Oh, and his name is still Fleshmonger.

So, how do we fix this? First, fifty is way too large a number; others would surely have been called in to investigate. Let’s reduce it to ten. Now, we need to narrow the focus of the subversion. Instead of trying to throw out whole plotlines, what’s a core idea we might like to deconstruct? Let’s say we want to tell a story which examines the tendency to judge others based on the surface appearance of their actions rather than considering the circumstances which pushed them to those actions.

In this case, wider society’s expectations and tendency to demonize outsiders will be the explanation. We’re still about to use a subversion, but now we’re just blasting open an old, worn lock so we can open the door and see the truth behind it. (Why yes, I am having fun with my needless metaphors. Thank you so much for asking!) Now, Kreth has killed one or two people, there’s no way around that. He’ll say as much to our hypothetical player characters himself: “Three, actually. Good men. It was a great honor. Friends of yours, maybe? I’d be happy to swap stories if you like.”

What?

Kreth is, again, an Orc berserker. I am aggressively opposed to the Forgotten Realms’ whole “racial alignment” thing, so keep that in mind. Kreth’s surname might be something totally different from “Fleshmonger” or “Fleshmonger” might just be the Orc version of “butcher.” He might elaborate, “Eat my enemies? Eat my enemies? I see where you’d get the idea, but no, we bury our dead and only eat animal meat, same as you do. Town I come from, it’s a disgrace just to handle your foe’s body roughly after you kill ’em.”

He seems rather genteel in a satisfying, short-spoken way, and you can probably get the picture. That last line is the hint as to why Kreth is out here in the first place: he lost his temper over an insult offered to a dear friend of his, killed the offender in a duel, and disrespected their corpse. For this offense, he was cast out. The three he killed in this area were only high-profile because they were fine, upstanding warriors; Kreth comes from a culture where to challenge and kill such enemies is a gesture of great respect. He challenged them, they accepted, and each fought and died honorably. For them and Kreth these could never be called murders, only proper duels in the shared tradition of all great warriors.

Okay, this does explain why those three in particular were buried and–upon exhumation, which Kreth is not happy to learn about but can forgive since there’s a proper murderer on the loose–found to have been killed with simple, devastating ax blows. What about the other seven corpses, flayed and ghastly, and why were their death-scenes all clustered within a few mile’s radius of Kreth’s home?

While enjoyable, I doubt anything in the above paragraphs surprised you much after the initial “Excuse you?” Here’s where we come to the fun part: Why, exactly, would a pretty, diminutive woman like Goodwife Siobhan have an understanding of eldritch lore? If we’re supposing a tabletop campaign, of course, it would be impossible to control the scenario to be sure of unveiling this answer the way I would prefer. But let’s be totally unrealistic and pretend the player characters act exactly as hoped for.

I knew what I was going to write there, and there would still be coffee all over my screen if I’d been sipping at the time. Pretend this isn’t totally ludicrous, okay? For me?

Assuming the ideal outcome, the party piece together the clues, noting that most of the slain appear to be nobles or wealthy merchants traveling through the area. They know that the killer seems to take special delight in brutalizing the slain. Following these clues, they guess that a caravan passing near one of the crags tonight will likely be the next target.

They hire on for its merchant leader as guards, and sure enough, the leader is plucked away without warning by a warbling purplish-black mass which sprouts spikes, hooks, and scythe-like blades in a constant squelching nightmare of drawing and sheathing. We’ll also suppose nobody thinks of a spell or class feature to use that would interfere with this cutscene. Again, yes, I know, just pretend.

Thus it is that when the group find the merchant, his screams have been reduced to gurgling croaks and agonized squeals as he bleeds out the last of his vitality. Still, the entity peels him layer by layer, careful never to cut a major artery, under the manic direction of–of course–Goodwife Siobhan.

A boss fight ensues, the party eventually win, Siobhan is taken prisoner or perhaps dying. “I’ll confess before whatever judge you want, but please, tell my family I was taken by brigands. Let them have the lie,” she begs. Again, subversions work better in small strokes. Siobhan is the guilty party, there’s no denying that, and this isn’t a pretty side of her by any means. It turns out the docile mother has a sadistic streak, a long and bloody one.

She still relishes what she’s done to those she killed. “I couldn’t stand thinking of it, night after night, those fat lords hauling themselves by while we’re a single bad hunt from starvation. And Ushlag, there,” Siobhan gestures to the hacked, charred remains of her eldritch companion, “she didn’t like being the bootrest for her people’s high and mighties either, so we thought, I’d figure out the targets and do the summonings, help keep her in our world, she’d grow stronger through the killing until she could take the fight back to her plane. And the crags, well, everyone in Glenweg knows the roads were built around them in the ancient days–so of course, if you hide in the crags, you can ambush travelers on any of the roads you like. I am sorry, though, that Master Kreth was taking the blame instead.”

Everything that made Siobhan lovable still holds true: she’s still a doting, affectionate mother and a loving wife. She’s still the pillar of her community. I would argue that in and of themselves, her motivations were noble: to acquire the resources she needed to look after her village. Yet, in her desperation and fury at an admittedly unjust system, she’s become a terror.

Feudalism is an awful system and I frankly agree with Siobhan’s actions against the lords in broad strokes–it’s supposed to be their duty to keep villages like hers provided for, a duty they’ve clearly shirked–but the merchants are a murkier matter, and torturing people to death is one line that should never be crossed. The fact that a large part of her clearly enjoys both the killings and the torture obviously makes this much worse. No matter how chaotic one’s definition of good, she’s gone too far. All this still subverts Siobhan’s established character, but in ways that expand that character rather than diminish it.

And as a result, the party’s decisions are much harder. It would be kinder to Siobhan’s family to spare them her dark side, except that news must surely trickle back sooner or later. Even if it doesn’t, this plays into the same perceived idyll that led the villagers to point fingers at Kreth–in their minds, evil is something that only comes from the outside. Is playing into their xenophobia really the right thing to do? Wouldn’t this explanation leave the villagers convinced that Kreth was the killer, with trouble sure to follow?

Now we’ve moved from subversion into deconstruction, and the more ends we try to tie off, the more loose ones we find. We have moved, in the course of a scenario I invented within the last hour for this one post–North can brag a little? As a treat?–into deconstructing the very notion of easy answers in a fantasy world.

Subversion is, again, part of that puzzle, but notice how I never couched any of this in terms of subversion? It was always about this character, that point of the setting. Subversive writing is neither the method nor the end goal in itself; it’s one of many results which emerge organically from staying true to the story’s premise, plot, and characters.

This post turned out twice the length I wanted it to be, but I believe it’s been worth it; I have no pithy one-liners to offer this time, I just hope you agree.

As always, please leave a like and share this post wherever you may go online, do remember to follow me here on WordPress, and let me know any thoughts you’d like to share down in the comments. If you’d like to keep up with me elsewhere, consider following me on Twitter as well–fair warning, it’s a mad roulette of writer’s musings and art retweets where I sometimes share NSFW material. Then again, perhaps that’s of interest to you!

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