"There is an art to it, and I'm very, very good at it. But enjoy? Well, maybe. When they put back the pieces afterward, and it makes them better."
"Deconstruction" literally means "to take something apart". When applied to tropes or other aspects of fiction, deconstruction means to take apart a trope in a way that exposes its inherent contradictions, often by exploring the difference between how the trope appears in this one work and how it compares to other relevant tropes or ideas both in fiction and Real Life. The simplest and most common method of applying Deconstruction to tropes in fiction among general audiences and fan bases, and the method most relevant to TV Tropes, takes the form of questioning "How would this trope play out with Real Life consequences applied to it?" or "What would cause this trope to appear in Real Life?"
This doesn't mean magic and other fantastic or futuristic elements, or any other tropes must be removed or attacked for failing to match up with their own pretensions of self-consistent reality, of course. While sometimes perceived as an aggressive attack on the meaning or entertainment value of a work or text, deconstruction is not properly about passing judgment (and in fact, the term "deconstruction" was picked over the German term "Dekonstruktion" to suggest careful attention to the detail within a text over violently emptying the work of all meaning). It means that all existing elements of a work are played without the Rule of Cool, Rule of Drama, Rule of Funny, and so on, to see what hidden assumptions the work uses to make its point. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as "played completely straight", and it can be thought of as taking a work more seriously on its own terms than even the work itself does, for the purpose of laying bare hidden meanings in the text. Often, the purpose of deconstructing a trope is to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in Real Life.
For example, in Dungeons & Dragons, when a cleric reaches the fifth level, they gain the ability to cast create food and water. Normally, the impact this would have on a society (especially a medieval or pseudo-medieval one) is completely ignored. A Deconstruction would explore how a society would react to that ability.
Note that while deconstructions often end up darker, edgier, sadder and more cynical than the normal version, there is no reason they have to be. While the Deconstruction process can reveal things we weren't thinking about for a reason — a major contributing factor in why it tends to be depressing — Deconstructions are free to exist anywhere on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Expanding on the Dungeons & Dragons example above, a cynical deconstruction would involve the food-creating clerics either being enslaved for their powers or becoming the ruling class in a Dystopia, while an idealistic deconstruction would involve the alleviation of scarcities and hardships based on class. Either one is perfectly valid.
And while it is true that dystopian settings and outcomes carry a far greater amount of conflict and thus make for far better story fodder than positive ones, giving a Deconstruction a cynical outlook just for the sake of there being a plot is not necessary; a story can be absolutely rife with conflict and still have an idealistic worldview overall.note
Sometimes the best fodder for deconstruction in a story or setting is not its major themes, but the aspects that are discussed the least, if at all. For instance, a work in which gender, sexuality, poverty, race, politics, etc. should have been important but were never dealt with adequately is ripe for a deconstruction.
Also note that Darker and Edgier, Rule of Drama and Cynicism Tropes do not by themselves turn works into Deconstructions, even if it means showing how dark and edgy something can be made. There are plenty of dark, edgy and dramatic tropes that are used without ever exploring the meaning behind them, or their realistic implications — indeed, the Rule of Drama often implies that dramatic plot developments are being introduced for their own sake when they don't necessarily make sense. While some of the most acclaimed works in their respective genres are deconstructions, and many deconstructions do utilize dark, cynical and dramatic tropes in the setting, it is the careful use and analysis of them that makes them acclaimed, not because they just have those tropes in them. See Not a Deconstruction.
Reconstruction is when the trope admits its flaws and then gets put back together, usually in a way that strengthens the trope. Think of Deconstruction as taking apart your broken car engine, and Reconstruction as putting it back together so it runs again. Deconstruction and reconstruction can become Cyclic Tropes. A set of conventions is established (the initial "construction" of the genre or ideas that are used in the story), this set of conventions is played straight until some author gets bored or frustrated with the implications the fantasy brings and decides to show us the unworkability of these conventions via a deconstruction of them. Atop the ruins, a more realistic narrative (i.e. one that accepts the criticisms of the earlier deconstruction) is then built via reconstruction, and in the future, this narrative gets deconstructed, etc. Cycles of deconstruction and reconstruction are a major element in how genres and tropes evolve. In philosophy, this evolution is also known as thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
See also Surprisingly Realistic Outcome for when this happens temporarily, usually for humor rather than deconstruction, and Fridge Horror, which is what people often think of deconstruction: revealing how really terrifying and dark something is by thoroughly thinking about it.
Please note: This page has been edited for clarity's sake. Please do not add any more examples. Add them to Genre Deconstruction, Deconstructed Trope, Deconstructed Character Archetype or the appropriate subtrope. Where possible please move examples to these subtrope pages. This page is about deconstruction as a method, and thus should be stripped down to meta-examples.
- Ascended Fridge Horror: When the creators themselves acknowledge the Fridge Horror of their own works and incorporate it into the story.
- Deconstructed Character Archetype: Deconstructing a character type (The Hero, The Lancer, Anti-Villain etc.).
- Deconstructed Trope: Deconstructing a single trope.
- Deconstruction Crossover: Works which involve crossovers from multiple fictional universes in order to deconstruct those fictional universes.
- Deconstruction Fic: When a deconstruction takes place in a piece of Fan Fic.
- Deconstruction Game: Video Games which deconstruct some aspect of the video game medium itself.
- Deconstructive Parody: Works which parody other works (or whole genres) by pointing out how silly and unrealistic they are, and hence deconstructing them.
- Deconstructor Fleet: Works which go out of their way to subvert, deconstruct or otherwise play with as many tropes as they can.
- Extraordinary World, Ordinary Problems: Works set on seemingly fantastic worlds whose denizens spend much of their time dealing with the same ordinary matters people do in Real Life.
- Genre Deconstruction: Deconstructing an entire genre, typically with all of its associated tropes and thematic concerns.
- Internal Deconstruction: Works which deconstruct aspects of their own premises or settings.
- Not a Deconstruction: A brief primer on tropes that are often confused with deconstruction.
- Reconstruction: The inverse; namely, works which acknowledge the implied criticisms of deconstructions and incorporate them into their stories in an effort to improve them.
- Decon-Recon Switch: The point at which a work shifts from deconstructing a genre to reconstructing it.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When a common trope gets deconstructed or subverted by having realistic consequences.
- Television Is Trying to Kill Us: A list of how and why numerous tropes that are common in works of fiction would be negatively impacted by the laws of reality.
- Unbuilt Trope: For when the trope (or genre, or character) was deconstructed at the time it was made, or, at the very least, popularized.