Freshness and tropes

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.

0 Responses to “Freshness and tropes”

  1. ckd

    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

    Or, say, a grey-bearded spiritual advisor and a somewhat faithful friend and a protocol droid and an astromech droid and a battle station that needs to be destroyed….

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s one of the standard ways to do something new with a trope: change its context. Dress an epic fantasy plot up in science fiction clothing. Tell a fairy tale in a modern urban setting. Put zombies into the Regency period.

      Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t.

  2. dr_whom

    TVTropes has a page for this too!

  3. dsgood

    In written science fiction, the answer to “Has this been used before?” is almost always “Yes, at least twenty years before you think it possibly could have been.”

    For example, “What we think is real is actually a game world; and most people are non-player characters” preceded fantasy RPGs by at least a few decades.

    For some other types of fiction, the tropes probably precede the invention of writing.

    • Marie Brennan

      Exactly. We are the monkeys with typewriters. Coming up with something nobody has thought of before almost never happens, depending on where you set your frame; inasmuch as it ever does happen, it probably goes along with societal shifts (e.g. narratives about computer games cropping up after computers have been invented). But even then, the building blocks are probably old ones, repurposed.

      • dsgood

        “…e.g. narratives about computer games cropping up after computers have been invented”

        Depends on definitions. If you accept a chess-playing robot as a computer, Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” was published in 1909. (And I suspect it wasn’t the first use.) John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamer saw magazine publication 1950; book publication in 1951. (And may be the earliest use of “It’s not a game, it’s real!”)

  4. raisinfish

    These are interesting thoughts thoughts. I agree that it’s easy to dismiss stories out of hand for the presence of tropes, when the presence often isn’t a problem, if the story overall is fresh.

    I think it’s important to consider why the tropes are present. If the author just failed to think outside the box, that’s a problem. But often tropes are present so the story can comment on the body of work of stories that use those particular tropes; in cases like that, they’re not only acceptable, but essential to meaning.

    • Marie Brennan

      Stories written to comment specifically on a trope or genre or whatever have to include them, yeah. Though you could make an argument that all stories are really in dialogue with other stories, so that kind of commentary is going on whether it’s the central purpose of the narrative or not.

      • raisinfish

        I can see that, but some stories are more actively engaged in dialogue with each other than others, I think. It’s a web, but some of the threads are more interconnected than others.

        • Marie Brennan

          That’s what I meant. Stories respond to each others’ tropes generally; some stories make that response their central point.

  5. drydem

    I personally think my opinion on tropes is partially influenced by my folklore background. Stories have always drawn on other stories. Some tropes are so deep that it takes a true genius to point out to us that they can be broken in a story.
    It’s part of why I like to teach Citizen Kane. The fake news story aspect of the whole piece was, at the time, revolutionary. Now it’s mundane. I wouldn’t be surprised seeing it in a Michael Bay film. Orson Welles was an artist who could break narrative frames in ways that unnerved audiences. Even more than Citizen Kane was his War of the Worlds adaptation. He broke down the very idea of non-fiction for listeners.
    But every aspect of any narrative is based purely on the tropes of storytelling that we inherit. Some sort of event being symbolic of something else in the story? technically a deep trope. Events occurring in a way that makes sense to the observer? technically a deep trope. Characters? Action? Location? Some of the deepest tropes
    All of these have been broken in works that people consider genius. Which is not to say that breaking tropes is the only way to tell a good story. Another favorite movie of mine, Casablanca, breaks very few tropes. It’s full of classic examples of tropes that helped define films for years afterward.
    We don’t need to constantly break tropes in the same way that we don’t need to constantly make up new words. Bo mii brik Bo bing arts, but I’m just being incomprehensible. We need context for comprehension, and while tropes can be a shorthand too short, ultimately the quest for a fully original story leads to Finnegan’s Wake, and we already have Finnegan’s Wake. I prefer to look for ‘true’ stories, which to me are stories that shed light on alternative perspectives on life and existence. That’s much better than being original in my view.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I almost included a bit up there about how that folklore education changes my perspective on “novelty.”

      One of these days I’ll find the time to rework my grad school paper on Tolkien clones into a more general-purpose essay. Short form is: duh, people, they’re iterations of a tale-type, of course they’re similar; the interesting question is how the variants differ and why.

  6. zunger

    I agree with you that tropes can have real value; used properly, they’re basically standard elements which “guide the eye” of the reader through the story. In something like an immersive fantasy, where there’s a difficult ramp-up period at the beginning of the story, tropes can make a huge difference in readability. That’s not always what one wants to achieve (Perdido Street Station and The Windup Girl are good examples of deliberately not giving the reader such an easy ramp into the world) but it can be very important in (e.g.) immersive short fiction, where there simply isn’t enough time to let the reader acclimate to the rules of the setting. Something as simple as kicking off the story with “Once upon a time” or “It has reached me, O King (but Allah is all-wise, and all-knowing, and all-merciful)” can let the reader get the gist of the story structure quickly, and let you move on to what you want to say.

    But there’s a problem with trope beyond the simple risk of cliché or harmfulness; if the story has nothing but standard tropes, even if it executes them competently then it’s going to be very forgettable. High fantasy is particularly plagued by this; the trope there is strong enough that a number of writers seem to have made careers out of simply following them. It’s sort of like Amy’s audition song advice — if you want a performance to be memorable, it has to be unique; to succeed with just standards, the work has to not only be good but be phenomenally good, a paragon of the expression of that idea.

    As you said, there’s plenty of evidence that these tools actually work, and so it’s naturally possible to achieve something good and enjoyable just by means of good execution of trope; but I think that the bar for making the work really stick out in people’s mind is much higher this way. Thus the value of subversion of trope, or of using a trope structure to lead to an original thing in the middle, or even of a nonobvious combination of tropes.

    • Marie Brennan

      Like I said, what holds true for a trope taken on its own doesn’t necessarily hold true for a bunch of them in a particular arrangement. Breaking up that arrangement, on the other hand, can be fresh, even if the components are on their own fairly standard. (E.g. epic fantasy . . . IN . . . SPAAAAAAAAACE!)

  7. zunger

    (after all, we are the proverbial million monkeys with typewriters, telling stories for thousands of years)
    Hey, it really did ultimately produce Shakespeare! Who’da thunk.

  8. pentane

    I’m with Feist, really.

    “Magician” is on my yearly re-read list because it’s a ‘ripping good yarn’ (as he calls it in the introduction).

    I also have “Red Storm Rising” on the list for the same reason and “In Conquest Born” which has the unclear protagonist thing, but is still a compelling story about interesting characters.

    None of the stories are/were innovative (though the whole Zatar/Anzha thing was new to me), but I love reading them anyway.

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