Zig-Zagging Trope

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

    Playing with a Trope meets Gambit Pileup.

    Sometimes, a trope is handled in a way that is, quite frankly, beyond our normal categorizations of subversion, aversion, Double Subversion, or inversion. Such tropes wind up as those rare complexities that can make the readers grin (or shoot their brains out due to being Mind Screwed). Thus, the Zig-Zagging Trope.

    Sometimes a Zig-Zagging trope is a product of overcomplication after it comes into play; anything involving a triple subversion makes the result a zig-zagging use of the trope. Sometimes, a trope is both inverted and played straight at the same time, which is also a Zig-Zagging trope. And sometimes the author is simply saying "Dance, trope, dance! Dance for my amusement!" before indulging in an Evil Laugh.

    In other words, think of an example of this as any that is too screwy or complex to be one of the other Trope Tropes.

    Examples of Zig-Zagging Trope include:

    Anime and Manga

    Fan Works

    • In the Ranma ½ fic I Want A Refund, Kuno has forbidden anyone to date Nabiki Tendo. Nabiki invokes an inverted "I'll do anything" offer to any boy that defeats Kuno -- secure in the knowledge that he will successfully defeat all the other boys in school (since Ranma isn't fighting). Kuno manages to defeat himself, and what follows is a Triple subversion of the "I'll do anything" trope- maybe even quadruple, or quintuple depending on your perspective.
    • Kyon: Big Damn Hero does this with Recurring Dreams: Kanae's favorite dream is kissing her sempai at the beach and magically teleporting to a shadowy wooded glade surrounded by bunnies and flowers. The dream isn't psychic or precognitive but events happen so her sempai is in a very similar position to the start of her dream. With Kanae sightly dazed (enough to realize the differences on her usual dream but not enough to realize she's awake, It Makes Sense in Context) she kisses her sempai for the first time, everybody watching.


    • Heroic Second Wind has a rather peculiar level of heavy subversion in The Matrix Revolutions: After Smith delivers a truly exemplary Nietzsche Wannabe speech, he asks the beaten Neo why the hell he even bothers to keep fighting. Neo stands and says, "Because I choose to." Cue asskicking, trope subversion as Smith rejuvenates and beats Neo to a pulp again, double subversion as Neo gets up again, triple subversion as Smith manages to infect Neo, and finally quadruple subversion as Neo uses his defeat to provide a link between Smith and the computer that created him, allowing it to simply delete him.
    • Galaxy Quest in regard to Lampshade Hanging.
    • The Bad Guy Wins becomes rather a Zig-Zagging Trope in Murder on the Orient Express. In the traditional way of viewing murder mysteries the "bad guy" is the committer or committers of the in-film murder, but the murder victim was himself a horrendous monster and mafioso who was killed only because he escaped justice by due process of law for his crimes, and a large part of the story involves the central dilemma caused by Poirot being after the murderer/murderers of a man who so obviously had it coming to him and was clearly the worst guy amongst all the characters of the story ethically. When Poirot figures out whodunnit, he lets the guilty parties literally get away with murder, allowing them to win in the sense of escaping justice even though they've lost in the sense of failing to succeed at their plot of deceiving him -- although in a sense they won to begin with just by succeeding at their plot to murder Ratchett at all, which is what they were there for in the first place. If you go by defining the bad guy literally as the most morally degraded character in the story, then Ratchett alternately loses in the sense of ending up a murder victim himself, wins in the sense that his murderer(s) cannot murder him without getting caught, and he loses again in that the murderer(s) get(s) away with it anyhow. And had won long ago at escaping the law itself in the first place to begin with, at which his success technically remains permanent.
    • Watching the Detectives zigzags quite frequently between Deconstruction and Reconstruction while playing tropes like a drum. It's better to just give up trying to analyze it and enjoy the dreamy blue eyes.
    • Men Don't Cry is pretty much thrown into a Tornado when it comes to The Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man can cry, and even does so on several occasions, but is advised against it and it ends negatively for him, as he rusts when it happens. The Cowardly Lion also cries several times out of fear, and while he isn't human, he is genuinely courageous in the sense that when he has a good reason to, he does things even though he is afraid. The meaning of the trope is also challenged a bit when it comes to them; do they count as subversions because they are male characters who cry? Or are they playing it straight due to the negative In-Universe connotations they have for crying?


    • Asshole Victim is toyed with in Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, where the murder victim qualifies under reasons two (to allow the murderer to be sympathetic) and three (it maximizes the number of possible suspects) . . . because he was the perfect embodiment of the planet's social code ("a good Solarian"), that is, an anti-social a-hole. Everyone had a motive to murder the man who reminded them all of their imperfections, and in the end Elijah Baley decides to sit on the knowledge of who murdered the victim.
    • The Mole is played with in the Harry Potter books with Snape. As in, the main characters have thought (and therefore the reader thinks) that he was every single sub-trope of this at some point, until finally he just becomes ambiguous. It was played straight to begin with, then inverted to become the Reverse Mole, then the main characters thought he was a Heel Face Mole who was just duping Dumbledore and can't be trusted, and then the inverse of that, etc, etc. That is, up until The Reveal, where it's established that he's just doing it for Lily Potter.
    • The entire point of the Tom Holt novel Falling Sideways. The description of the backstory of the major players is revised, revisited and completely contradicted every two or three chapters, and keeping track of all the lies (and trying to fit it into the events of the book) becomes a big brain-hurting exercise. It doesn't help that, at the end, there's still plenty of huge Plot Holes.
    • Voluntary Shapeshifting gets a lot of play in The Sirantha Jax Series. There's an alien species who change form... by extruding an extra skin around their insectoid bodies. They can manipulate the features on the outside layer, but they occasionally have to molt it and replace it.
    • The Wheel of Time zigzags Kissing Cousins in one chapter, when Rand is researching his family tree, trying to figure out if he is related to Elayne Trakand, his lover, and receives a lot of confusing and slightly contradictory evidence resulted in the trope going from seemingly played straight, to subverted, to "sort of true." Elayne is indeed Rand's cousin, but only a very distant one. They descend from the same bloodline, but are not close enough to be considered really related.
      • Except that he doesn't know his mother was actually much more closely related. We think anyway.
        • They are very distant cousins... who share a half brother, by way of Rand's mom and Elayne's dad.
    • The Hunger Games zigzags There Can Be Only One: The premise is that the last survivor wins. With only a few competitors left, the Capitol makes an announcement that if the last two survivors are from the same district, they will be co-winners. Katniss and Peeta become the last two survivors, but the Capitol lied, and there will only be one winner after all. They decide to commit double suicide rather than attempt to kill each other, and the Capitol backs down, deciding that having two winners is better than not having any.
      • In the second book, there's even more play on the trope- Katniss is sure that there can only be one winner this time, but then five of the tributes are rescued from the arena.
    • Lisanne Norman's Sholan Alliance series does this with Luke, I Am Your Father. It's mostly an inversion, but...
      • To whit: Mara has a mate. She is also pregnant. Her mate is not the father. Half a chapter is devoted to finding daddy.
      • Played with for Kaid and his son, Dzaka.
    • Candle by John Barnes does something to Shades of Conflict, as one reveal after another changes the apparent shade of the conflict. In order: Black and White Morality (One True is good, the last rebel raped a little girl for the fun of it), Black and Grey Morality or Evil Versus Evil (One True is solely concerned with propagating itself, but the representative of it who serves as the main character is only partially controlled and is a Lawful Good Well-Intentioned Extremist), White and Grey Morality or a reversed Black and White Morality (One True lied about the rebel, and he's actually a good guy), Grey and Grey Morality or Evil Versus Evil again (the rebel is the last survivor of a benevolent Hive Mind founded to protect humanity from One True and its like, but it jumped off the slippery slope and now what remains of it forces him to convert more people, just like One True), and finally Rousseau Was Right (the rebel himself is still an idealist, and One True is willing to learn from his example, voluntarily splitting itself into bits and becoming more of a Mental Fusion. The sequel takes it another step: One True is trying to be good, but is still driven to propagate itself, and may or may not have killed thousands of people so it could assimilate the rest into its "benevolent" control.
    • Monstrous Regiment does that with the Modern Major-General Blouse's Ping-Pong Naivete. Is he really that stupid? No, he turns out to be a genius about certain things. Then he reverts right back to a useless officer, and back to smart... and back.
      • He's smart about certain things ... and only about those things. It's just that, unlike most characters of his type, he can find practical uses for them. But only some of the time - the rest of the time he's genuinely clueless.
      • Wouldn't that make him a Genius Ditz?
      • As well as this trope, Monstrous Regiment zigzags Sweet Polly Oliver , when it starts applying to every single character. Except Vimes.
    • Umberto Eco's approach to The Death Of The Author tends toward this, as demonstrated by The Limits of Interpretation.

    Live-Action TV

    • iCarly with its lack of continuity and Rule of Funny taking precedence does this with a few tropes, but one of the more obvious and repeated tropes Zig Zagged is Shipper on Deck:
      • Mrs. Benson in the first and second seasons is clearly a Carly/Freddie shipper, going so far as to ask Carly "Why won't you love my son!" In Season 3 she Zig Zagged into an anti-Carly/Freddie shipper, blaming Carly for Freddie getting hit by the truck in "iSaved Your Life", for Freddie deciding to move out during "iMove Out" and basically blaming him for Freddie hitting puberty:

    Mrs. Benson: You're the one who got Freddie interested in girls, and ever since then his boy chemistry's been all out of whack.

      • Sam's actions in "iSaved Your Life" and "iStart A Fan War" show that she doesn't seem to mind the idea of Carly and Freddie together as long as it's for the right reasons. Then she Zig Zagged later, when she kisses Freddie in "iOMG" it's clear she wants Freddie for herself, and any previous acceptance of Carly/Freddie is replaced by her own feelings for Freddie.
      • As a result of the above actions, Carly appears as a Shipper on Deck in the first iSeddie episode "iLose My Mind" cheerleading for Sam and Freddie to get together, asking the audience about it and generally acting extremely happy about the situation. Then in the next episode "iDate Sam and Freddie" she's Zig Zagged by being caught in the middle of their fights, telling them that they shouldn't be together because they can't sort their own problems out.


    Newspaper Comics


    • A variant on a popular joke is a triple or quadruple subversion:

    "My grandfather died at a Nazi concentration camp."
    "He fell out of a guard tower."
    "Your grandfather was a Nazi?!"
    "He was trying to escape." (beat) "The prisoners were rioting."


    Tabletop Games

    • Traveller: Planetville. A planet does not have to be a planet ville. Many planets are large and complex societies and some have mini-sourcebooks about them. On the other hand PCs when travelling through the stars often don't see more than the starport. On the other hand, a whole campaign can be set on a single planet. On the other hand some planets are almost virgin worlds with no more then a small outpost on them, whose population may be that of a small town or even a village.

    Video Games

    • Legacy of Kain somehow manages to do this with both You Can't Fight Fate and Screw Destiny.
      • As does the Terminator franchise, even when it probably shouldn't...
    • Ace Combat zig zags around So Last Season with its starter planes; some games have better starter planes than later ones, but the current latest one, 6: Fires of Liberation also has a better starter plane that some games before it. See the trope page for the full rundown.
    • Fat Princess does this to Save the Princess.
    • Knight in Shining Armour trope in Braid.
    • Frontlines: Fuel of War zig zags with Bag of Spilling: Each mission comes in two halves, and you keep all of your gear if you die... But when the second half of the level loads you're suddenly stuck with a regular weapon set and none of the collected gear from the first section.
    • Jeanne D'Arc actually managed to pull this off with the Doomed by Canon Trope. In real life, Joan was burned at the stake but in the game, she was previous Not Quite Dead, so her best friend Liane was actually posing as her for a portion of the game. Liane instead was captured and burned at the stake since she had been masquerading as Joan and everyone believed her to be the true Joan. For extra irony, Joan herself appears on the scene moments after.
    • Portal 2 does this with Boss Arena Idiocy. In the course of a few short minutes, the Final Boss of the game defies it, plays it straight, subverts it, and double subverts it. The subversion is itself set up with a justification earlier in the game: there are elements of the mainframe room that are not under the control of the supervisory AI. This does not, however, prevent it from setting traps.
    • Nethack has a triple subversion of Useless Useful Spell. The game has an instant death spell (and wand that contains the spell in consumable form) that's Too Awesome to Use against regular enemies. However, the list of things immune to it is "everything that's already dead", which, in the first subversion, does not include all the bosses (it's about half; as an extreme example, two of the three endgame bosses are vulnerable to it, one is immune). However, the most powerful bosses (that are vulnerable to it) will simply respawn, making it much less powerful against them than you'd expect. However, it's still the most effective weapon to use against them anyway...
    • King's Quest IV and King's Quest VII do this for Standard Hero Reward. Subverted, gender inverted, played straight, subverted another two times, gender flipped again...In the end, Edgar and Rosella just agree to date.
    • Fire Emblem Elibe does this to Lamarck Was Right: Played straight with Lou and Ray's magical ability (inherited from Nino), Eliwood's and Hector's ability to wield Durandal and Armads, respectively; inverted with Zephiel's (and nobody else's) ability to wield Eckesachs; subverted with Hector's and Lyn's inability to wield Durandal in Rekka no Ken and with everybody's (if they have the appropriate skill in swords) ability to wield Durandal in Fuuin no Tsurugi. Also subverted with Lilina's magical ability, as neither Hector nor his wife were able to use magic.

    Web Comics

    • Look under "Fan-Preferred Couple" for El Goonish Shive. The trope is set up when an alternate love interest for Elliott is introduced in the form of Nanase, subverted when they turn out to actually be a couple, double subverted when she breaks it off because there's no spark, and then triple subverted when Ellen/Nanase becomes canon. Triple-subversions are extremely hard to do... but the trope isn't being subverted as much as being a straight playing of Will They or Won't They?.
    • Darths and Droids do this with Not the Fall That Kills You. More complex than you thought.
    • Sivo in Gunnerkrigg Court is a triple subversion of the "Knight vs. Dragon" story.[1]
      • This comes close to quadruple-subversion level, though only time will tell: Reynardine is now under Annie's control, and as Annie learns more and more about him, he appears to be far more sympathetic and far less the demon that Eglamore believed.
        • Probably already counts as a quadruple subversion, after in #109 Eglamore requested to turn Reynardine over and Antimony refused and offered a good rebuff, so the situation essentially turned into "the Fair Maiden saves the [ex-] Dragon from the Knight".
        • Tom zigzagged the Ship Tease in chapter 34 where it looks like Annie and Jack flirt with each other well, in contrast to their previous awkward interaction in chapter 31. They have an apparently sweet moment in a balcony, which leads to her saying she doesn't like him when it looks like they're about to kiss. Then he sighs in relief and declares a crush on Zimmy. She gets pissed off, and he gives her "The Reason You Suck" Speech. He then cracks a joke, and she agrees with the joke and concedes to his calling her out. It finally ends in a relatively sweet moment which leads her to offering him an actual kiss. He turns her down gently and they're shown hugging at the end.
    • Randomly point a finger, with eyes closed, somewhere on the Fate and Prophecy Tropes page, and you're likely to find something in Digger that's addressed in this manner.
    • The Order of the Stick does this with Exclusively Evil. Subverted, inverted, averted, double-subverted, and ultimately deconstructed. And just occasionally played straight. It works beautifully.
    • The Whiteboard does this regularly with More Dakka, substituting paintballs for real bullets. LOTS of paintballs.
    • In Nedroid, the initial comics had a lot of artistic experimentation, with some comics looking sketchy while others looked gorgeous. As time went on, the comic eventually focused on a simple, but polished art style. It's two cases of Art Evolution while simultaneously being two cases of Art Decay.
    • This Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal panel is a textbook example of screwing with the reader's expectation so many times it makes you dizzy. The webcomic in question loves this trope.
    • Jack zigzags Parental Abandonment with Fnar, an innocent unborn, who has two dead parents - both reside in Hell like he does. He is mainly kept away from them, since Mama's stuck in a dangerous place, and Papa is just dangerous. Later on the trope gets twisted further: Papa finds him and to some degree abuses him as a means to get to his de facto guardian, after which Fnar is separated from both Mama and Papa as he is given another chance at life. Except that not all so, because Papa is a Sin and able to visit the world of the living...
    • In Tales of the Questor, Ralph Hayes has loads of fun with Be Careful What You Wish For:
      • Subversion 1: Quentyn is careful what he wishes for, very carefully wording his wishes so that his Fae Lord enemy has no loopholes to wiggle through.
      • Subversion 2: Later, he convinces himself that he wished for the wrong things—that he should have used them to bring back the artifacts he's looking for.
      • Subversion 3: He's told that his wishes were the most damaging things he could possibly have asked a Fae Lord for All debts and favors cancelled, everything stolen returned to the duchy, and barred from hunting the world again—and what he thought he should have wished for would not have worked as he thought.
    • Sequential Art had fun with 5C4RL37 and her sisters building a Humongous Mecha, because it's clearly the best way to stop a giant bug. Then they got carried away and due to a scaling error made what on the next page became a Powered Armor. Then liked it and made more. But later built one Mini-Mecha anyway, as a carrier for "Soopa Soots".

    Web Original


    "So are you a nazi, or a NAZIIIIIIII?"


    Western Animation

    • There are at least two episodes in the Men in Black animated series which play with the What Measure Is a Non-Cute? to a somewhat confusing degree:
      • In "The Buzzard Syndrome", an alien comes to Earth hunting another alien, so it's Space Policeman hunting Dangerous Killer. Then the lies are exposed, and it seems to be Heartless Bounty Hunter hunting Cute Alien. Then it turns out that the cute alien is a killer, so it's Heartless Bounty Hunter hunting Cute Dangerous Killer. Bit hard to keep track of the lies.
      • In "The Star System Syndrome" something is doing in the alien actors of Hollywood. They believe it's the Space Demon, a washed-out actor who looks like the Alien, but he just wants to get another movie deal. It turns out to be the Astro Tots, the cute little hosts of a children's show. And then, it turns out the Astro Tots are exactly as harmless as they appear and that they only trapped the other actors for setting a bad example.
    • A Triple Subversion occurs in The Simpsons episode "Bart Gets An Elephant." Two men are carrying a large pane of glass across a street. Out of nowhere, Stampy the elephant comes charging down the street, only for the men to move out of the way. Then Bart comes racing down the street on his skateboard in pursuit; the men move out of the way again. This leaves them free to continue carrying the pane of glass across the street, where they promptly toss it into a garbage bin, shattering it.
    • The TV series version of Aladdin has a female genie called Eden, who is also Benevolent Genie. Unlike Genie however, she's wise enough to become a Literal Genie when dealing with Jerkass Abis Mal. When the villain wishes Genie imprisoned in the bottom of the ocean, she gives him an escape hatch because Mal didn't say forever. When Mal wished to be the biggest and strongest being in the world, she including a method of relieving him of his power; and when the little girl who finds her wishes for everything to be all right, she turns Abis Mal into a bug as a "freebie". She also went out of her way to encourage the little homeless girl to come up with better wishes; when the girl wished for a sandwich, she convinced her to wish for a lifetime supply of food instead.

    Real Life

    • In the days of William Shakespeare, all roles in a theater play were played by men or boys. This includes the female roles, so you had guys dressing up as girls, so you get Dude Looks Like a Lady. Which makes for a very interesting time when this guy is playing either Viola from Twelfth Night or Rosalind from As You Like It. Both are female roles, but the females disguise themselves as males in their respective plays, producing the reverse trope, Bifauxnen. So you end up with a guy playing as a girl that's pretending to be a guy: a crossdressing double-cross, one could say.
    • This newspaper article suggests that a current[when?] political sex-scandal is going through this. In brief, Gay male mayor, possibly underage male intern. On the one hand, Gay Man Child Predator is a very old and damaging trope, on the other hand Hot for Student suggests that we don't think of a young male was 'taken advantage of' but maybe even 'got lucky'. By contrast, old guy - young girl is seen as more 'appreciable' but much more often 'predatory'. Furthermore, gay men are 'expected' to be secretive about their sex lives for some because of privacy, for some because of leeway for a frowned-upon sexuality, and for some because of Brain Bleach.
    • The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is either a straight example or an inversion[context?]. They found the body but don't know who it belongs to. In fact it is a recognition of an aspect of war that people don't like to think about. That is, often enough people get so mangled that not only can you not tell which person it is from, you cannot even tell if it is one or a mish-mash of parts of several.
    1. To wit: A Rogat Orjak smashes in Antimony's dorm roof. He introduces himself as Reynardine, and asks that Annie stay with him so the cruel knight won't capture and imprison him. The next day, Annie sees Reynardine again, and he tries to possess and kill her. Sir Eglamore -- the knight from the previous evening -- saves Annie. So he was the good guy and Rey the bad guy all along. The triple subversion comes when Eglamore explains that Reynardine is a "demon" -- and that the Rogat Orjak whose body Rey had stolen was an old friend of Eglamore's, named Sivo.