The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

images

The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

Pieter_van_Os_Horsemen_and_travellers_outside_an_inn

“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which of course became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

Saturday Short – “Red”

I wrote this short story in response to a challenge from a fellow blogger, to write a 1000 word story based on the photo prompt, which I have included here. She actually posted a picture a day, and we were to come up with 1000 words a day. It was hard! I didn’t actually keep up, but this was one of the early stories, and I kinda like it. Yes, I realized after the fact that the time on the watch is not 6:25, but 6:35. But I had to keep it as 6:25 in the story, for obvious reasons. Oh well. I was writing fast, so you’ll have to forgive me. 


Stacy touched the hair clip with her finger, adjusting it so it was an equal distance from the bow tie and the pen.

She heard Toby’s exasperated sigh, but she ignored it. She was on to something, she knew it. Sweat trickled down her nose, and she brushed it away absently.

“It’s red,” she muttered. She sat back, her shoulder muscles aching from being hunched over the desk for so long.

“No kidding,” Toby retorted. She heard him push back his chair, heard his quick footsteps on the tiled floor. She didn’t bother looking up. They had to figure this out. There wasn’t much time left.

Time. Her eyes were drawn to the watch. 6:25. The time when everything had stopped for Luke, and truth be told, for everyone else, too. Eight hours ago now, but it seemed like a lifetime.

She heard a scream, faintly, heard Toby’s quick intake of breath, the rattle of the shutters as he peered outside.

It was all just background noise, distractions she had to ignore as she focused on the objects illuminated by the thin beam of the flashlight.

The pen. The sunglasses. The wallet.

This configuration felt right. She looked them over again, desperately searching for the revelation that was tickling around her mind.

The shutters fell back against the window, and Toby came back, sliding into the chair opposite her.

“It’s getting worse out there.”

It was not worth commenting on. What did he expect, that it would get better?

The headphones. The bow tie. The phone.

Smashing glass, faintly at first, then closer.

Her head snapped up, met Toby’s startled gaze. He swore, his voice tight with fear as he popped up again, over to the window in two quick strides.

A louder scream, more glass breaking, and around the edges of those sounds a faint low-pitched, snarly muttering.

Stacy’s blood turned to ice, her eyes pinned on Toby’s silhouette against the window; a dark shadow against the darker night beyond.

“Turn it off!”

Tony’s voice made her jump, and Stacy snapped the flashlight off, plunging them into full dark.

“Oh God,” Toby exhaled, the words a thin sigh of terror. “I think there’s one coming in, or maybe more, I can’t see – “

The far-off noises of the city’s death continued as it had all night – muffled explosions, the sharp staccato of guns; the futile last fight of mankind.

Stacy forced her attention back to the objects, tracing them with her fingers.

The billfold. The phone. The watch. The glasses.

Toby sat down again, leaning over the desk. It was true, you could smell fear on a person. He reeked with it.

Her fingers touched the smooth leather surface of the Bible.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Now.” His voice was thin with panic.

“No. Not yet. I’ve got to figure this out.”

“We’ve been doing this for hours. There’s nothing to figure out! No message! No final words, no nothing! He died, like everyone else!”

The pen, the hair clip, the bow tie, the Bible.

The weird whooping electrical noise that had preceded the attack on the city, that had formed the background to everything else, was getting louder.

Her brother grabbed her hand, stopping her sweep of the objects again. His fingers were cold. “Stacy, listen. There’s nothing mystical about this. Those creatures – I dunno what the hell they are, or where they came from, but they are real. Luke died, just like the rest of them. Just because you found this stuff of his in his backpack doesn’t mean anything.” He squeezed her hand, hard, and she had to look up. She could see the faint glimmer of his eyes in the dark. “You haven’t had your pill. The OCD’s making you crazy. You’ve lined all this stuff up a million times, in a million different ways. I’ve gone along with it ‘cause I thought we were safe, that they wouldn’t get this far. But they have. They’re inside the building. We have to go, now!”

Stacy knew he was right. She could feel the cage of OCD closing around her, knew that what she was doing was not necessarily rational. But neither was anything else that was happening.

In a crazy world, maybe it was the crazy ones that could survive.

“I know,” she said. “But not just yet. Just give me a second – “

She pulled her hand away, fingers fluttering over the objects again.

“The hair clip is red,” she said, “that means something. The only thing of color.”

Toby exhaled.“We have to go. Now. Just take them with you if it makes you feel better.”

Muffled thumps drifted up from the building, from somewhere below, but not directly below. They had some time, yet.

“Red,” she said, touching the objects again. The pen, the bow tie, the Bible.

She froze, the revelation rolling over her like a freight train, the pieces snapping in to place.

The Bible.

Read,” she hissed, picking up the small book. “Like reading. Read.”

She snapped on the flashlight, directing it at the pages, her fingers fumbling now.

“Stace! Turn it off, c’mon – “

She flipped through the pages frantically.

This Bible stuff was new to Cody, new to them all. He’d gone to some camp, came back all religious. Talked about Jesus.

Her fingers froze. Red words illuminated under the flashlight’s beam.

“Wait, how do you do this, I mean, when you look up a verse?”

“This is crazy – “

“I swear this is it, Toby, this is the answer. We have to find it.”

His eyes were frantic. He blew out his cheeks.

“You need a book, a chapter, and a verse, like, John 3:16.”

Her eyes caught on a word. Luke.

She flipped the pages.

“Luke 6:25. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” She looked up at her brother. “The end of the world. That’s what this means, what it’s telling us.”

“So what?”

“So maybe the answer is in here, too. The way out of this mess. It’s gotta be.”

Snappng off the flashlight, she scooped up the small book, dropping it into her pocket, her fingers skimming its edges quickly.

Taking her brother’s hand, they left quickly, two small figures racing away from Armegeddon.