Once again, I’m building up a raft of tabs in my Firefox bar — but since I’m still trying to do that “more posts of substance” thing, I don’t want to knock them all off with a linkdump. So let me see if I can’t get around to discussing these things.
io9 had a good piece recently: Is “avoiding tropes” the same thing as telling fresh stories?
On the one hand, yes, if you define “trope” as “something that’s been done before” and “fresh” as “something that hasn’t been done before.” As Charlie Jane Anders points out, TV Tropes has gotten so obsessively detailed, the term has gone well beyond applying to full-on cliches (things that have been overused to the point of being worn out) to just about anything that might be seen as a pattern, however minor. But Anders goes on to say, Maybe we tend — and by “we,” I definitely mean “me,” among others — to fixate on the presence or absence of too-familiar story elements, instead of thinking about whether the story as a whole was fresh, or strong, and whether it moved us. And that suggests a different connotation for the word “fresh,” that doesn’t restrict it solely to a sense of “pure novelty.”
I’ve come to realize over time that I don’t care as much as some people seem to about novelty. Possibly because it’s both so easy and so hard to pull off: hard because any given idea, taken in isolation, has probably been done before (after all, we are the proverbial million monkeys with typewriters, telling stories for thousands of years), and easy because all you have to do is stick something random into an unexpected context. A guy moving to the big city with dreams of striking it rich is a trope; Jesus opting out of being crucified because he wants to make it as an actor in Rome is a novelty. The latter may be original, but that doesn’t make it good.
And the thing about tropes is, they happen because they work. The pattern is one that speaks to something within the audience’s hearts and minds. One person tries it; the story resonates with a lot of people; it becomes a piece of the toolkit for other storytellers. There’s a point at which trope-avoidance becomes an exercise in not doing any of the things you know will work.
Having said that, some caveats. Sometimes the thing a trope speaks to in the audience isn’t so good; What These People Need Is a Honky (the insertion of a white hero to save the poor beleaguered non-white people) is a splendid example of one that’s both common and problematic. Other times, the trope’s power to move the audience is diminished by overuse; the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense worked for many people because they weren’t expecting it, but then Shyamalan became known for sticking twists into the ends of his movies, so they lost the surprise factor and much of what made them effective. And what holds true on the micro level may fall apart on the macro; I won’t necessarily ding you for telling a story about a farmboy in a fantasy world who gets swept up into epic events, but if he also has a grey-bearded magical advisor and a faithful friend and an elf and a dwarf and a ranger and a magical artifact that needs to be destroyed in order stop the Dark Lord from taking over, then we’re not talking about a trope, we’re talking about an entire insta-kit of them that you’ve assembled according to the instruction booklet.
For me, “freshness” boils down to the ability to make me sit up and pay attention. Sometimes you can achieve that by doing the unexpected, but you can also do the expected so well that it comes to life as if I’ve never seen it before. The characters are so vivid, the plot developments so sharply executed, that I can’t spare the brain cells to think about other stories that have done the same thing before; I’m too absorbed in the drama you’ve pulled me into. There’s nothing wrong with using the tools your forebears crafted ages ago, so long as you use them with skill. Unlike the “entirely new” approach, there’s evidence that those tools actually work.