The Trouble With Tropes

Ah, tropes. Some people love them. Others hate them. They are unavoidable, really. The trick is to make them fresh, and that is the hard part, as I found out yesterday.

Let’s establish a working definition of trope, shall we? At least, for the duration of this essay. A trope is generally considered a cliche’. I disagree. A cliche’ is a cliche’; something that has been overused to the point that it is no longer a commonplace, but a grating, irritating nuisance in the hands of a lazy man who does not want to employ genuine thought and vocabulary. A trope is different. A trope is a standard element in a story. Without the trope, it isn’t the story. For example, it isn’t a fantasy story without magic. Magic must be wielded by someone, and that someone is usually a wizard or sorcerer. The wizard or sorcerer is the trope. The trope can move toward cliche’ when he falls into the Merlin / Obi-wan Kenobi / Gandalf / Dumbledore category. He stands on the threshold of becoming a stereotype. The work of the writer at that point is to move him away from that threshold and make him original.

I think the worst trope of all is the concept that tropes must be eliminated from a story. Tropes exist for a reason; they are mythical elements, and expected elements. They serve great purposes. The effort to eliminate them will be obvious. Those efforts can also knock a story right out of its genre. It isn’t fantasy without magic, science-fiction without technology, horror without a monster, romance without love, or a mystery without a corpse. Even mainstream literature has its own set of tropes that must appear, otherwise it isn’t literature. So, unleash the tropes! Then, make them your own. They are tropes, not stereotypes, not cliche’s, but tropes. A war story without a soldier? The soldier is the trope. Now, make him a three-dimensional character.

I use quite a few tropes in my Aura Lockhaven stories. I like fantasy tropes. I grew up with them. But when I use them, I turn them into light-hearted elements. It’s my way of gently poking at a genre I love. Here’s an example:

I use the hidebound trope of the farm boy who becomes a wizard. Except that’s it’s a farm girl. Well, she isn’t a farm girl, she just lives on a farm. Well, okay, she also didn’t exactly grow up on the farm. Her first ten years were spent as the spoiled daughter of a tavern owner. Oh, and she doesn’t become a wizard; she begins the story as a freshly minted wizardress. And it isn’t really a farm. Neither she nor her master are farmers; the place is overrun with blackberries and heather. Uh, where is that trope again? I pretty much stripped it of all its stereotypical elements, and ended up with more or less a nice, charming setting. The rest of the tropes I use face the same treatment.

There was this one trope, however, that I could not turn into a lighthearted fun element. I had a magic portal into another realm. It was a leftover from the old graphic novel I wrote back in 2010. As open minded as I am, I grow weary of that trope, unless it’s in the back of a standalone closet. I just couldn’t turn it into anything else but a stereotype. It worked in the graphic novel, but it refused to bend to my will in a written novel.

So, I got rid of it entirely.

The result was chaos! That one act threw the entire story into confusion. No magic portal meant no magic realm to step into. The longest story arc in the entire book just disappeared. I had characters that became unnecessary. The events that followed no longer made sense. I had a minor villain who suddenly wanted to be the major villain. The former major villain now looked more like a minor hero. I had an important situation that had to appear for the later books to work, but its setup just vanished. Even Aura’s genealogy collapsed into crumbs. Removing that trope actually unwove the fabric of the entire series. How was I going to straighten out this mess I caused by getting rid of just one trope, one scene, one paragraph?

I went back to the end of chapter nine of book one and started over. That was the earliest point in the story that did not suffer the ripple effect of eliminating the magic portal. In the process, I trimmed the story by one-third. Following the graphic novel script, the introductory story was going to be four books long (the magic portal appeared halfway through book three). Now, I can fit the introduction into two books without sacrificing the story (I hate trilogies — now those things are a cliche’). I was able to make the entire story tighter, add a ton of intrigue that wasn’t there before, and focus even more on the development of my main character. I do have some problems to work out, but the solutions will present themselves when I reach those chapters. A major delay, yes, but a welcome one.

Well, time to get off this blog and get writing. Aura Lockhaven is tapping her foot and glaring at me. I caused her some distress and she expects me to correct it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s