Tropes and archetypes are effective as a channel of short hand communication between the reader and writer because they are predictable. Whenever a trope or archetype is presented to the reader, they will subconsciously compare the current work to other stories in which they have seen similar elements. One of the biggest risks of using tropes and archetypes is being perceived as clichéd. However, this tendency can also be used by a clever writer to surprise the reader.
As writers are also voracious readers, we are aware of how tropes have been used and what expectations are associated with them. When we write, we can choose to either fulfill those expectations or subvert them. In this way, tropes and archetypes both provide an invaluable opportunity to pull a twist. Though reactions will vary from individual to individual, many readers will be surprised and delighted by this tactic. They will want to see where this twist goes, engaging the reader and pulling them through the story.
As I see it, there are two major types of trope and archetype subversions. In the first, a surface subversion, the trope is invoked and then immediately and obviously twisted. This often is done for the sake of comedy, and is a popular technique for satirical books and movies. Take for example the scene in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights where Robin serenades Maid Marion. Though a starlight declaration of love and desire is a common trope in romances, the way Mel Brooks set up the scene is designed to satirize the story element. Such treatment is appropriate and effective given the style of the movie, but attempting to subvert or even utilize the trope again would not be wise. The joke has been made, time to move on.
In the case of a deeper subversion, the reader is led to believe that the trope is in force once it is invoked. The author then subtly clues the audience that those expectations may be wrong before revealing the twist. It is essential that the twist makes sense in hindsight, so much so that it seems inevitable. This technique can clearly be seen in Frozen. The setup of Anna’s character shows her to be someone who is desperately chasing romance. However, in the climax of the movie, the theme of “Sisters before Misters” is clearly cemented, subverting the trope that Disney has relied on for more than a generation.
By subverting a trope or archetype, the author plays on the reader’s expectations and twists them to enhance reader engagement. The tropes still serve their purpose as a means of short hand communication between the writer and audience. However, the subversion allows for an element of originality and cleverness that keeps the tropes and archetypes feeling fresh and original. However, subversion must be used intentionally, with full knowledge of the technique’s effect on the reader. Only in this way can the reader’s expectations be exceeded.