Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Makes Old Tropes Work?

Before I get back to serious writing in December, I'm doing more playing with this Old Serial style story. The problem with a story like this, which is both a reinvention and an homage to an old genre, is that it is a type. I may be taking it in odd directions, but such a story is built out of familiar tropes - what some people call cliches. How do you keep it fresh? How do you surprise and delight yourself (and therefore the reader)?

I've been thinking a lot about that lately.

The word trope comes from Latin and means a turn, direction or tendency. It also refers to a style or manner. A heliotrope turns toward the sun, for instance. I like to think of it as a dance step.

From there it came to English through rhetoric. It means, according to Webster's: "to use a word or expression in a different sense from that which properly belongs to it." In other words a metaphor, simile, pun or irony - a clever turn of phrase that gives extra meaning. A figure of speech.

It is, of course, ironic that a word which more or less means "something different" has come to refer to cliches and standard patterns. Writers prefer the word trope to cliche, because it has fewer negative connotations: Common writing wisdom says it's okay to use tropes properly, but cliches must be eliminated.

If we really want to give the idea of an old pattern or formula a positive spin, though, we use the word archetype.

An archetype isn't exactly a trope. It's the essence of something - the original, the perfect example, the thing on which other things are based. So you could say it has the opposite of the original meaning of a trope. An archetype is not a clever take on something. It's plain, unadorned. An archetype already has a solid meaning, and we can build on it. For example, the story of an ordinary hero who overcomes a great foe is an archetype - David and Goliath, Die Hard, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Now here's the cool part.

You can dress those archetypes in old cliches and it'll be boring. But if you consider the rhetorical meaning of the word trope (that it holds a different the meaning from that which "properly belongs to it") then you can see why a trope is more attractive than cliche. A cliche is exactly what's expected - boring. A trope, on the other hand, is a little dance step that plays with what's expected. It teases and flirts with you, but doesn't cross the line.

When you are writing something that requires an archetype - like an action movie or a category romance - you should keep this definition of trope in mind. Don't just worry about the big things. Play with the little ones. Use the tropes to change it up, and vary from the original meaning. Take a different direction, add a little style that doesn't properly belong there.

If you do this, you can turn expectation into anticipation.

And anticipation is what turns pages.

(Hmmm, I think I'll start a series on Tropes and Expectations now. So many interesting examples out there.)

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Anonymous said...

Cliches are powerful. Nothing ever got to be a cliche without being used a lot, and only powerful tropes get to be used a lot. Respect your cliches!

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, there's a reason people use them, and it's not just convenience!