Saturday, December 4, 2010

How Tropes Can Trip You Up, Part 2

Yesterday's post was theory and explanation. This one should be more practical: how am I going to deal with the same issues in one of my own stories. I'm having troubles with a scene in The Serial, in particular.

And I just realized that, when described simply, the scene I'm having trouble with is very much like the scene from The Ice House I talked about in yesterday's post: A radical suffragette is questioned by a cranky policeman. (Except no "assault and kissery" involved. Unless you count the fact that she unintentionally aided and abetted in dumping him into a muddy pond in the scene before it.)

The similarity makes this an especially splendid example though, because it is a sort of reverse of the problem of yesterday's scene. To whit:

In that scene, the Forceful Kiss (tm) causes the situation to be misinterpreted. In this one, the situation causes the audience to expect a forceful kiss, or something like it.

The story is a comedy adventure, of the kind with romantic misadventures. And when a spunky woman dumps a cranky man into a muddy pond (semi-unintentinally) it's a classic example of what the RomCom industry calls the "Meet Cute." (I.e. the lovers first meet in some unique or "cute" way.) In the chickflick universe, he is almost guaranteed to turn out to be the love of her life, or her boss. (Or the boss or father of the love of her life.) This is a well established trope that goes back to the madcap comedies of the thirties. (Just check out Bringing Up Baby trailer from 1938 - that story was "meet cute" all the way through.)

The fact that the guy is a policeman, though, at least puts it in the "boss" side of the equation, and that's actually kind of where I intended the whole sequence to be.

But as I wrote the subsequent scene, which I had planned to use to get some character development in, along with some information, I had this sinking feeling. The characters were in prickly conflict. The more conflict, the more it seemed they were destined to marry, settle down and adopt a leopard of their own.

Which is definitely not going to happen. And the more I tried to signal that it wasn't, the stronger the trope became. That's the nature of that trope - denial breeds certainty: "Your lips may say no-no, but there's yes-yes in your eyes!" Aaaaaggggghhhhh!

So I started pulling my punches. I started to steer away from conflict and character development and anything that would trigger the romance trope, and I ended up turning the scene to mush. I had inadvertently shown the audience a bomb that wasn't going to go off, and I was stuck with it.

What to do?

Luckily there are a number of ways to deal with such things. The one thing you can't do is ignore it. (Well, you can try. In a subtext situation like this, you can hope the audience will forget it - but they will be waiting for any hint that they were right about it, and they will jump on any scrap of clues they find.)

So the first thing is to figure out what elements of the scene caused the anticipation. That can almost always be described as tension - in this case, romantic tension.

A trope like this will break if the characters don't fit the "type" - if they are diverging ages, or one is particularly unattractive or evil or delusional. Unfortunately, these characters are not diverging ages. They are both both moderately (and equally) unattractive, but they're sidekick characters and so the feeling would be that they were made for each other. Neither is evil - as a matter of fact I was counting on this scene to humanize the detective who will be a major antagonist in the story. It would be convenient if one of them misjudged the other completely. If, for instance, he thought she were looking for a husband and decided to slick back his hair and make embarrassingly inappropriate advances.

But that's just the thing - they aren't delusional. Both of them understand the other all too well. They are, if anything, the least delusional characters in the story. This is where the personal tension in the scene comes from. They may be in natural opposition, but they also share something that the other characters don't. They are both realistic, and that's a connection between them.

So, if the romantic tension in the trope is because characters delude themselves and deny the truth, I think the best solution for me is to dig out that connection. The more they (or you) try to prove there is no chemistry, the more the audience says "ah ha! They're in love!" So cut the denials. Go after the truth, fast and sure. They have a connection that sets them apart, so let them bring that straight out and use it as a part of their negotiation - and let it be a negotiation, not a fencing match.

And finally, I said the characters were not evil. However, they are not friends, and they don't have to be fair, and they don't have to feel guilty about not being fair. Behaving like a villain (not a scoundrel or rogue) kills romantic tension. Yes, it happens in romances, but when it does, the purpose is to break the trope - to kill the romantic tension - and then it will take a lot of effort to bring it back in unexpected ways.

And if it doesn't fully break the romantic tension, that's okay, too. If I've cracked that trope far enough, it's a way to keep the audience guessing. Is this a possible relationship? What's going to happen next? Oh! Not that, but this!

Tomorrow I start on the Dare again. I've done some thinking and I've revamped some overall goals. I will post these tomorrow.


stu said...

Or there's that other fun option, playing on the trope, where one character is vaguely aware that it is how it happens in fiction and so assumes it must be so in 'real' life, to the other's horror. Always a good one to mine for comedy value.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, that's a great one. (I'd consider it part of the "one character is delusional" option.)

Unfortunately it doesn't work for these two characters.... however, you've given me a thought. This story takes place in a pastiche world, so wouldn't the rules of fiction become a kind of physical law? Have to think about that....

marycatelli said...

The Law of Narrative Casuality

The Daring Novelist said...

Heh heh, Mary.

Actually, there is a fun SF series about an alternate universe that does run on the laws of cheezy B-movies and television. It was called the "Cineverse" and there were three of them. At the moment I can't remember the author, but a search on Cineverse should find it.

I think I don't want the work of pushing that kind of concept in this series though. Part of the purpose is to keep it clean of too much world building. Use the tropes to help the audience, don't explain more than necessary, etc.