Friday, December 3, 2010

How Tropes Can Trip You Up, Part 1

A while ago I wrote a series of blog posts where I took a clip of a British TV mystery off YouTube and analyzed some character techniques used in it - looking at it intentionally out of context. The show was an adaptation of Minette Walter's The Ice House, which is not available in the U.S. on DVD, and was a book I had not read. (I found other books of Walters to be grueling). The point of that exercise was to filter out the distractions of context, and look at technique directly. You can read the post about why taking away context can be useful in the first post here, and see the clip and read the analysis in the second post here.

But it's the third post that relevant to the discussion of expectations and tropes. The clip in question had three scenes, and the third one was impossible to understand without context. I was going to skip that one, but my Alpha Reader had some interesting thoughts about how it looked out of context - she interpreted it very differently than I did - so I ended up posting about the discussion, which was about how genre expectations change the meaning of the scene. I'm not going to repeat that here. You can read it if you're interested. (This is something of a follow up to that post, and it is relevant to what I'm saying here. We'll wait.)

The scene in question involves the questioning of a radical feminist by a hostile policeman, and it ends with what my Alpha Reader called "the old forceful kiss routine."

The forceful kiss is a well established trope in romance in particular, but it leaks out into a lot of genres where there are romantic subplots. Two characters are fighting, but the fighting is really a cover for the passion they feel for each other, and the forceful kiss is the release of that building tension. It reveals the truth about the character's feelings.

Since that post, I got my hands on a copy of the region 2 video, and also read the book, so I know the context now. In the book, the scene happens rather differently. They are both seated, and he reaches out and grabs her by the throat, yanks her across the desk, and the kiss is described as being "as brutal" as the rest of the attack. She's left with bruises. The author doesn't dwell on the moment - it's as fast and brutal as the action. It's not romantic at all. It's assault and battery. And the woman reacts in the same cool, detached way as she does in the video. The implication is that the sergeant has just destroyed his career, and power in the relationship has just shifted squarely to her.

So, the Alpha Reader was right that the video version had manipulated the staging, but they didn't do it to set up a passionate moment. I suspect they did it because the real scene was 1) hard to stage and 2) it was probably too intense for TV, especially given that detective, Sgt McCloughlan, will turn out to be the protagonist. The scene was a turning point for him. He was utterly out of control, and now he starts behaving more professionally, and more respectfully, and he is more attentive to the case. He will also become openly attracted to her.

Which is unfortunate, because between that and the fact that the filmmakers pulled their punches on the assault, the kiss becomes ambiguous. And worse, the theme and his motivation - and hers - become very muddled.

The theme of this story is compassion. It's a nasty universe, but those who have compassion can be saved.

A little later she will render her own tough compassion onto him. (Tough enough that he tells her that "in your hands compassion is an offensive weapon.") If the kiss was not an unambiguous assault - if it was personal and had anything positive behind it - then her act is not really compassion. It's a reciprocation of prickly affection. And if he does not witness this real act of compassion - if she's just gone soft because she likes him back - then he has not met someone the like of which he's never met before, he's not impressed, and he doesn't change. He remains a floundering drunk who has lost faith that the universe has compassion at all.

So that's the way tropes can trip you up. They have power to change meaning in your story. And of course, you can lose control of the audience expectations. Like the Alpha Reader who groaned at how the story had suddenly gone artificial and shallow. If this makes you expect a sappy romance, then you'll turn it off. Sure, those who are lusting after Daniel Craig might think "oh, goody!" and keep watching, but odds are they will be dissatisfied with the way the woman reacts. Both groups will be annoyed at this woman who doesn't react - because they misinterpreted the motivations. The trope tells them this is a love story, not a life-threatening battle for power.

So if you let a trope control too much of the audience's expectations, it's like the Hitchcock example - you're showing the two guys talking, but not showing the bomb. In the book, Minette Walters showed us the bomb. That kiss was an assault. The filmmakers could have made it more brutal, or even removed the kiss from the equation altogether. (IMHO, that's what they should have done, but tropes are powerfully attractive.) The book was able to use it because they broke the trope so clearly, and the kiss fit with the fact that McCloughlan's downward spiral was partly sexual frustration. (But that's already expressed in other ways, so wasn't really necessary.)

I have a problem with a very similar trope in The Serial right now. It's not as dramatic. Frankly it's more subtle, because more related to situation than event. I'll talk about that tomorrow in How Tropes Trip You Up, Part 2.

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Dead to Writes, a mystery for Kindle, by Cathy Wiley
"Is Baltimore's newest author also Baltimore's newest murderer?"

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