This week: To Trope Or Not To Trope Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
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|Trope. Other than an obscure word, what is it? The dictionary says it’s a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression. If that’s all it is, why think about it at all? Well, that’s because a trope is much more than the dictionary definition. In fact, tropes are everywhere.|
For example, book covers often include visual tropes, making science fiction, romance, and detective novels among others recognizable to their readers. The cape is a superhero trope. The sidekick has a been a trope since Cervantes and Don Quixote. Bad guys wearing black is trope. A red tunic in Star Trek is a trope—it tells us the unfortunate crew member will die. The twelve-chord-progression is a trope in blues music, and the do-wop progression is a trope of fifties pop. Salvador Dali’s melted clocks are a trope in his paintings, representing time devouring itself and everything else. Teenagers making bad decisions in horror stories is another familiar trope.
Tropes are ubiquitous, and in all artistic media. They’re even in non-artistic media, like political oratory where folksy stories are a trope to establish the common touch.
Tropes involve more than just symbols and metaphor, or even handy things like metonymy, as in writing “Hollywood” as a substitute for “the US film industry.” The observant reader will notice I just used a synecdoche by describing metonymy as “handy.” Okay, my proclivity for polysyllabic elucidation is showing again. That’s one of my personal tropes.
The point is that tropes are familiar things. You don’t need fancy words to understand them. They are a big part of how we communicate, and you almost certainly already use them.
A trope is simply a common convention that gets used often enough that people recognize it. That’s it. Nothing hard in that.
Tropes are ways that writers can reveal things about plot and character by applying the familiar in a new or unexpected way. The website TV-Tropes has hundreds of examples. There’s the “kill-the-dog” trope, for example, where the bad guy kills a puppy, establishing just how evil he is. That’s different from the “shoot-the-dog” trope, where a good guy makes a difficult moral choice, like shooting Old Yeller to spare him a horrible death from rabies. Then there’s the “pet-the-dog” trope showing a bad guy who can pet a dog isn’t so bad after all, similar to the “even-bad-guys-love-their-mommas” trope. The idea is that specific, familiar situations and actions reveal things about character and plot. What makes TV-Tropes website so useful is that it’s a vast compendium of clever tropes for achieving various ends.
Tropes are not cliches, or at least not necessarily. For example, a story using the trope it-came-from-space ,where a calamity arriving from outer space threatens Earth, could involve new ideas, as, for example, in Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Or it could be a hopelessly cliched and scientifically impossible mess, like the recent Moonfall. Tropes are most useful when they subconsciously act on the audience, or when their application involves some unexpected twist. To be effective, tropes need your creativity and originality in order to be fresh.
Tropes are also different from archetypes, although an archetype can be a kind of trope. Tropes are about people, actions, things, situations, and so on that appear in life, in fiction, and in history. Tropes often include personality and cultural context. Archetypes usually refer to the role a character plays in a story, such as mentor, damsel-in-distress, or sidekick. Archetypes tend to be general, while tropes are particular. Hercules of myth is an archetype; Hollywood Hercules, with bulging muscles and a loin cloth, is a trope.
What are my favorite tropes, other than using big words? Well, one is the “AM-radio-reveals-all” trope, where the music the character listens to on the car radio foreshadows plot. If they’re listening to the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Night the Devil Went Down to Georgia,” you can bet the story will involve demons of some kind. On the other hand, John Denver’s “Country Roads” sets a different expectation. If the radio plays both, that sets up unresolved tension, suggesting we’re not really on the road to rural paradise.
The ticking clock is another favorite trope. It establishes a deadline and thus creates tension. This trope appears everywhere in cinema, from Speed to almost any James Bond flick. Any deadline serves as a ticking clock, so midnight in most versions of Cinderella acts as a ticking clock. Michael Connely's detective novels often cite the 48-hour for solviing homocides, another example of the ticking clock.
There's a famous Hitchcock discussion of the ticking clock where he contrasts tension and shock. Some use this to argue that tension is superior to shock, but that's not what the master said. In fact, he said “the bomb must never go off.” If Hitchcock had never shocked his audience, his movies would be a sequence of false alarms. In fact, he was quite willing to shock his audience—the shower scene from Psycho is a trope all by itself because of its shock value. That scene is so famous, it’s even appeared in The Simpsons.
For another trope, consider the ending of North By Northwest, which shows the train entering a tunnel as a metaphor for an implied tryst between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The tunnel-of-love is a well-established trope, although I wonder how many viewers in the 1950s were consciously aware of it.
Teasers and queries are a place where tropes can be helpful. Whether it’s the “can’t-live-with-them-can’t-live-without-them” trope in a romance novel, or the “hero-with-a-thousand-faces” trope of the adventure novel, or the “defective-detective” trope seen in the noir detective novels such as the works of Dashiell Hammett, tropes can provide quick signposts to potential readers and editors about the novel’s plot.
The point is that tropes are everywhere and you can’t avoid them. So, the answer to the question, “To Trope Or Not To Trope” is that you don't have a choice: you're already using them. But tropes are like anchors. They can weigh down a story if used thoughtlessly, or they can deepen the reader's engagement with your fictional world by providing an anchor to the familar.
Tropes can be rainbows leading to a pot of gold, or torpedos that sink your story. Since you can’t avoid them, use the power of tropes to free your creativity and follow that rainbow. Who knows, maybe there really is gold at the end.
Jeni Chappelle posted this insightful thread on twitter which inspired this newsletter.
If you're interested in big-words-as-tropes, see Wikipedia
I wound up in a sink-hole listening to musical tropes, so I’ll share some of those here..
You can hear the twelve bar blues chord progression here. In the Mood by Glenn Miller, the theme to Petticoat Junction, and Tutti Frutti by Little Richard all use this progression.
The fifties do-wop progression is here Examples are Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman and Sh-Boom by the Chords.
The falling bass progression is another trope that appears lots of places, including Bach. Examples from pop music include Procul Harem's A Whiter Shade of Pale and Jim Croce’s Time In a Bottle. You can really hear the descending baseline in the opening measures in these examples.
Different chord progressions induce different moods. See here for a discussion by a composer of scores for movies and video games.
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|Readers of this newsletter know by now I like off-beat topics. In fact, I'm always looking something new I can riff on, so send me your ideas!|
We have a WDC member who is a contributor to TV-Tropes!
From BIG BAD WOLF : I like TV Tropes. I've created/edited a number of pages there.
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