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The Power of Tropes

As we have seen in How Stories Really Work, there are four basic genres, each growing out of the kind of effect a writer wants to produce upon a reader. If the overall intended effect is to be an uplifting one, a writer needs to choose certain elements that will result in a reader who feels uplifted; if the overall effect is to be an introverting or even depressing one, then a writer has available a range of tools which will assist in the creation of that effect. These tools should be seen in much the same way as other tools used by every writer: like words, even like the letters which make up words, these elements or instruments produce reliable, almost guaranteed effects upon a reader. They form the secret language of fiction.

The two uplifting genres are Comedy and Epic, with by far the majority of fiction falling into the Epic category; the introverting genres are Tragedy and Irony, with the bulk of modern fiction fitting neatly into the Ironic category. Each genre has its standard metaphors: Epic Fantasy, as a sub-genre of the Epic category, has some obvious ones. In most Fantasies, society has to be mediaeval in nature, elves have to be graceful and wise, dwarves have to be miners and be gruff, and the enemy has to be some kind of Dark Lord, usually seeking to deploy some kind of artefact to rule the world. These metaphors are used frequently largely because they have a long, successful heritage. Like words and letters, they are a ‘code’ which readers, familiar with their use, can ‘sound out’ in their heads. A fantasy writer has thus only to mention the word ‘elf’ to conjure a whole race of beings into existence in the reader’s mind, in much the same way as the word ‘red’ evokes a particular colour. See Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for an excruciatingly accurate glossary of these kinds of terms. Well-used metaphors like this are called ‘tropes’ and extend far beyond the genre of fantasy, though it’s in fantasy that they are perhaps the most obvious. Romantic fiction, for example, with its ‘tall-dark strangers’, uses these kinds of established images all the time.

Modern fiction is more often than not an Ironic attempt to subvert them, to get away from them, to re-invent them, sometimes successfully (as in Pulp Fiction’s re-imagining of gangsters) and sometimes not (as, arguably, in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, seen by some as a classic but by others as a failure).

Tropes create, reinforce and manipulate familiarity; they are part of the language of fiction that we recognise and have grown accustomed to over years of reading and watching plays and films, like words, letters, certain visual images. They are inescapable: an attempt to write a ‘trope-free’ story would parallel an attempt to write a story which didn’t use letters or words (or in the case of film or theatre, visual images) at all. Their use is as little to do with conservatism as the use of language itself is. They are part of the fabric of what we call literature or fiction, whether some like it or not.

Thus the appearance of the old mentor with a stick in an adventure film surprises no one; the fact that the girl has to go through a series of ridiculous incidents before she ends up marrying her man will shock no audience watching a farce; the mis-estimations and wrong moves of a tragic hero will catch no one off guard. Even in the more complex and chaotic world of an Irony, where the intention is to distort and twist and surprise, the old metaphors are seen providing the foundation for whatever the new ‘take’ is to be.

What, then, is the problem with tropes?

A writer’s vocabulary can be quite limited: a writer who fell back on clichés sentence after sentence would soon cease to be attractive. It’s the same with these established metaphors. If they are used as a kind of replacement shorthand for proper story-telling, they soon become tired and transparent: the mysterious stranger who rides into town in the Western; the young farmhand who glimpses his destiny beyond the farm in a Fantasy; the girl who is at first spurned by the handsome, wealthy man to whom she was attracted in a Romance -- all these are codes, conjuring whole sets of reader expectations with a few rapidly painted images, a smattering of words. If that is all there is, the reader will soon have the sensation of deja vu and of shallowness. Tropes like these unless they are the beginning of something deeper and better, will remain superficial and unsatisfying.

Hamlet, betrayed Prince of Denmark, instructed by his father’s ghost to take revenge, is underpinned by a revenge trope: alienated son seeks vengeance for father’s murder. Shakespeare’s enrichment of the standard trope with all kinds of ironic surprises and depths of ideas, wealth of language and insight into broader human nature means that the underlying trope takes on its proper function: it becomes no more than the ‘washing line’ on which to hang all kinds of other things.

Using tropes incorrectly in effect de-energises the work.

Tropes do this by deflating the vacuum power which should drive both characters and plot. This means that where the protagonist should have a genuinely felt and urgent personal gap, void or yearning for something which prompts him or her into action in the story, a dull and overused trope substitutes a generalised expectation: the farm boy, instead of being motivated by a heartfelt loss over a relative, is simply expected to jump up and take on the adventure with no real inner motivation at all. Similarly, a plot which is pulled along by a genuine sense of excitement around questions like ‘What will happen next?’ and ‘What is really going on?’ can easily become, if tropes are overused, an uninteresting and predictable series of events which the reader hardly feels compelled to read at all.

What motivates readers to read is the sense of something missing. It draws them to the page and then draws them to turn that page. If a trope is so bland and simple that the reader can immediately see what’s coming, there is no compulsion to turn a page and little compulsion to keep reading. He or she will feel -rightly- that the story is derivative of a thousand others.

J. K. Rowling took the well-used tropes of magic, with its wands, wizards and so forth, and another old trope of the school story, and combined them to fascinate a whole generation of readers in the Harry Potter series; Julian Fellowes took the tired old tropes of historical drama and combined them with the more modern, though still very-much-used tropes of soap opera, and created Downton Abbey, which captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic until it fell victim of its own predictable tropes. It’s arguable that J. R. R. Tolkien took the ancient tropes of mediaeval fairy tales and transformed them in a whole new way through his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, effectively inventing the modern fantasy genre. How did each of them do this?

By restoring the sense of unknownness, the vastness of the ‘void’, the thrill of the unpredictable, to each trope. Though we might have ‘known’ all about wizards and wands, we had no idea how the introduction of a school of magic might play out; though we were familiar with the class structure at the beginning of the twentieth century, we had little concept of the outcome of the stories of each set and sub-set of characters in an ongoing setting; though we had of course heard of elves and dwarves and dragons and so on, here was the whole world of Middle earth stretching out before us, with plenty of space for unexpected things to happen.

Marvel’s recent hugely successful ‘cinematic universe’ is another case in point: plenty of well-used superhero tropes involved there. It was the promise of their combination in new ways, with new, unpredictable outcomes, that attracted vast audiences.

The Star Wars films basically took the tropes of the fantasy genre and re-invigorated them by giving them new scope, new ‘unknowns’, new spaces, new ‘gaps’ which drew in viewers in droves.

So while a trope is part of the secret language of fiction, as familiar as words, quickly growing comfortable and predictable, the way to open up its potential is to give it new vacuums, new vistas, and new mysteries.

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