[Writing Prompt] Turn A Trope Upside Down

Writing Prompt LogoIn James Blish’s Surface Tension (which I reviewed recently), the author took the idea of space travel and did something a bit different with it: instead of humans arriving on a new planet and terraforming it to suit themselves, they genetically-engineer versions of humanity that would thrive on the planet.

Now that’s what I call ‘subverting reader expectations’. But it’s still a satisfying story that sticks to the rules of an off-planet adventure story (lots of ‘wonder’ and new environments, inter-personal conflict, conflict with the environment, bad guys, a struggle to unite the ‘good’ forces and to survive. Even a little romance.)

The Prompt

Write a story that subverts reader expectations but still works in genre


  • Think about a genre you love to read, whether it’s Sherlock Holmes-like detective stories, or Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or a contemporary, literary story.
  • Make a quick list of some ‘norms’ here (Sherlock is clever and solves the case with little to no help from anyone; in the Romance, the girl gets the guy; in Sci-Fi, the humans are the good guys; in Fantasy,  the nobles in the fantasy realm have all the power; in contemporary fiction, reality is pretty much as you’d expect it…)
  • Think of ways you could up-end the reader’s expectations.
  • Remember, there are some norms you can’t change without annoying your readers a lot.
  • Romance should have a happy ending, even if it’s only ‘happily enough for now’, and it must have a relationship, but who says the girl has to get the guy?
  • What else could you try? Space Opera-like Sci-Fi has to have spaceships and strife (but what if the Empire or the Alliance or the other major power is really on the side of good, for once? What if your alien is the hero not the sidekick?);
  • Other types of Sci-Fi have to have some kind of futuristic or alternate-reality thread;
  • Fantasy has to have some intrigue (but what if the nobles are not the powerful minority but the pitied, deluded class that the rest of society decides to support, out of compassion, while keeping them away from the sharp knives…);
  • What if your literary writing takes a magical-realism turn?
  • You don’t have to come up with something NO ONE has ever done before, just something that isn’t your first idea.
  • Dig deep. Write 5-10 ideas for ways you could write a story that’s a little bit different. When you get to the point that you’re grasping at straws for another idea, that’s when some of the most interesting ideas will appear. Can you make one of them work?
  • For some examples of this, read Surface Tension by James Blish (Sci-Fi), A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (Sherlockian), or listen to any of those great country songs by women where the girl decides not to stand by her man…

What story did you write? Leave a comment and let us know!

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