Storytelling – Breaking Conventions

Conventions are the norms, the agreed upon rules or scenarios we see in everyday life:

Surprise birthday parties, dress-down Fridays, waiting ages for a bus and then two show up at once, spooky noises in the middle of the night etc.

Of course, these will occur in Fiction, Television, Films and other storytelling media as but sometimes we can take the norms, use them, adapt them, bend them, sometimes even break them, shattering them into pieces.

There’s a few different ways to approach conventions:

Follow the Norm

Saint George and the Dragon, Paolo Uccello, c....

Image via Wikipedia

This is where you follow what the audience would expect to happen. This could be temporary (as a way to lull them into false security), to set up a twist or just to show a normal everyday situation.

E.g. A pretty young blonde woman is attacked by a monster (the damsel in distress convention).

Alter the Norm

This is where you keep reasonably close to a common convention but add defining difference.

Birthday Cake

Image by Will Clayton via Flickr

Example: There was an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on today in which she celebrated her  17th birthday. Her friends waited for her to show to a surprise party and she did: Through the window with a vampire she was fighting and then another character (Cordelia) yells out surprise.

 There were two differences here to a simple surprise party convention:

1. Buffy surprised them, they didn’t surprise her, highlighting that she never gets a day off.

2. They open a crate that the vampire was stealing and find part of a demon’s arm in it. This is an example of altering a known convention for effect (opening the presents). Basically it’s showing the audience (either for humour, characterization or both) that the situation is different from the norm.

Destroy the Norm

This would be where the situation is dramatically altered from what we would expect, to the point of few, if any recognizable conventions. This is hard to do, seeing as even breaking out of convention is technically in itself a convention, but don’t let that deter you from trying new reactions to usual situations.

Innocence (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Image via Wikipedia

E.g. Remember the `damsel in distress’ convention mentioned above? I used that example for a reason: It ties in with the Buffy example in that, when Joss Whedon set about creating Buffy, he decided to break the `damsel in distress’ norm and say `What if the girl turns around and fights back?’ It may seem pretty regular to see female action heroes now but at one time it was a position reserved exclusively for male characters and often made for much duller stories.

Some Further Examples:

  • True Blood mirroring the Civil Rights movements.
  • Shaun of the Dead / Hot Fuzz both use common film conventions and change them for humour.
  • In Philip Pullman‘s Dark Materials Trilogy, Lyra’s chief quality is her ability to be a good liar (hence the name Lyra). Normally in children’s book this is not a common quality for a main protagonist, let alone a distinctive trait. 
  • In the early days X-Files made the cover of Sociology review because it reverses common gender conventions. Previous to the show, Men were often depicted a skeptical, rational and scientific and women were the ones who were prone to `magical thinking’. This convention was turned on its head in this role and is probably the reason that the TV show Bones is frequently compared to the X-Files. In both shows, the female protagonist holds the traditionally male role of empirical scientist.

Your turn

Do you know any good examples of breaking from the norm?

What’s favourite new take on an old convention?


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