Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tropes and Me

Gotta love the internet (or Internet, for those who like their capitalization to be proper). This morning, I did a quick, interesting research session on reforging broken swords, and found just the bit of information necessary for one of my characters to sound like he knew what he was doing.

In the midst of that search, I encountered many references to World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings (the shards of Narsil, after all, were reforged by the Elves into Anduril), and was struck by the notion that the use of a broken blade in a fantasy tale might not be a good idea. It's overdone. However, the two broken swords in my novels are not magical or powerful in any way; they are just ordinary weapons damaged in battle. The first almost kills one of the heroes; the second belongs to a man killed while fighting a dragon.

Yet, as I contemplated the possibility of change, I came to the conclusion that -- just because my story has a fantasy trope or three -- I don't have to fall into any ruts or cliches.

A trope is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a word or expression used in a figurative sense" and "a common or overused theme or device" i.e. gunfights in Westerns, love triangles in soap operas, alien invasions in science fiction.

Tropes are tropes for a reason: they generally work. Yeah, we rail against them as being predictable, cliche, too easy, but they are markers, telling us what kind of story we have encountered, what we might expect if we proceed further. On the other hand, if an author knows the tropes of his genre, he can twist the story, surprise the audience, turn the cliche upside down or inside out.

I guess that's one reason I enjoyed the recent SyFy miniseries, Tin Man and Alice: the familiar, beloved The Wizard of Oz (book, movie) and Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass (AiW book, LtLG book, and various movie interpretations) retold in unexpected ways. Although the original stories were present, they did not unfold the way the audience already knew.

There's something to be said for the familiar and predictable: it can be comforting. Young children, for instance, want the story to be told, word for word, the same way every time. They might chastise or correct the adult who tries to skip ahead or change up a tale he or she finds boring.

On the other hand, we grownups have pretty much heard and seen and read it all. We tend to be on the search for something fresh, something that will keep us guessing. Still, we also have certain expectations about what makes up a particular genre -- there's generally a crime committed in a mystery novel, or something futuristic in a science fiction yarn -- and therefore, whether we like 'em or not, there are tropes.

So, alongside dragons and big battles, the broken swords will remain in my novels. They're fantasy, after all. Can't leave the audience always guessing. :) happy


Phy said...

I think you're on the right track.

Hollywood has a bad habit of thinking only in terms of tropes. If it's a Western, it should have at least one duel in the streets, one stampede, one taciturn anti-hero, etc. And yet, you can include all those tropes in a story as long as you do it in a fresh way.

For me, the story is the key. I thought the redone version of 3:10 to Yuma worked largely because of the writing and the charisma of the wicked Russell Crowe and the pain of the gimpy Christian Bale.

So, yeah, just because the tropes are there doesn't mean they're tired. They're only tired when do have no other reason to be in the story than to exist as a box to be checked.

Lola X said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Keanan Brand said...

Lola X - Your comment has been deleted because it looks suspiciously like spam from an inappropriate site. If I've made a mistake, feel free to present your case.

Phy - (I wrote a response to your comment a while back, but apparently the post didn't "take", so here I am, reconstructing what I can recall of that original response.)

Months ago, my brother and I had a conversation about "3:10 to Yuma". He'd just watched it with his wife, and was telling me why he preferred it over the new version: mainly, the old hero didn't have the weaknesses that the new hero had, and he never wavered.

I hadn't seen the old version in several years (still haven't gone back and watched it), but I presented my case for the new one: the struggling rancher had internal and external obstacles to overcome, as we all do, and I thought it ratcheted up the tension in the story.

While my brother and I never quite came to an agreement, we could concede that the other person had a point. (That's always a good discussion, in my perspective!)

And since the discussion concerns one Western, why not another? (laugh) I really enjoyed "Open Range" because it played with tropes, too, and one scene in in reminded me strongly of a scene in "Firefly", namely one in which the hero doesn't spend time palaverin' with the villain, but just walks up and shoots him, and then gets on with other business: in the first instance, Kevin Costner's character gets the hired gun out of the way and then he and his partner start taking care of the other baddies, with help from the townfolk; in the second instance, Mal -- as you know well -- isn't going to let the villain run the show, and just shoots him.

Sure, there are guns and standoffs, but nothing drawn-out and overly dramatic, no standing for a long time in a dusty street while music plays and stares are exchanged, fingers tap against low-slung holsters, etc. In "Open Range", most of the gunfight tension is built in the scenes leading up to the actual fight: Charley and Boss saying goodbye to friends (just in case), scouting the situation, making preparations, learning each other's real names in case a tombstone or two is required, etc. Good stuff.