Devil’s Advocate – Tropes are Good

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Alternatives to Dragons

Most fledgling writers have a misguided sense of the importance of their originality. More specifically, they misjudge other people’s appetite for the quantity and concentration of original ideas they want to share.

Serious writers quickly learn not to merely retell their favorite stories as “x in spaceships” or “x in real life” (though, fascinatingly, some studio executives never do). But many promising, hard-working writers spend years churning out material that is–sadly–too original to be good. We’ve all seen it–a scifi book with too many new technologies to be comprehensible or a fantasy book with more a’postr’oph’ed names than anyone could keep straight. The story is drowned in novelty.

We love to be fresh. We want to showcase our originality. But praise for our creativity tempts us to indulge ourselves with too many plot twists, too many fantastic settings, and too many of our unique ideas.

And it’s garbage. If your story isn’t at least 50% tropes, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Stories are about connecting with people, and people connect through patterns. Word patterns, routine patterns, story patterns, tonal patterns, etc. Tropes exist because they are patterns that have been used successfully in the past to connect with people… and they connected with people because they were patterns.

Stories are also about intriguing the audience. Surprise, horror, shock, delight. These are all emotions created by novelty–by leaving known patterns behind and striking out–even briefly–into a relatable new experience.

The only source of absolute novelty is absolute chaos. Even the noise and chaos of cities like Mumbai and New York are based mostly on complex, interacting patterns–not originality. So unless you’re leading a Dadaism revival movement, your creativity must inevitably be based primarily on recognizable, human patterns.

The great mistake is not comprehending the tropes. Most people value both familiarity and novelty. Without patterns, people struggle to make sense of things. Patterns allow us to understand, to connect, to feel familiar. Without novelty, we have nothing to pique the mind, frighten us, disturb us, make us question ourselves. Novelty keeps the brain engaged.

Your writing should be constantly, deliberately swinging between familiar and strange depending on what you are trying to accomplish and the amount of story time you have available. The shorter your piece, the more you have to rely on the reader’s premixed understandings of life.

For example, if you want to create an intimate moment of two characters finally connecting, you need a large amount of familiarity to create the feeling of warmth and connection–plus enough originality to make it feel fresh and memorable. In reality, you are adding only a small dab of newness–just enough to evoke a strong emotion and make this stand out as a memorable story experience.

Here’s exactly the wrong way to write your warm connection scene:

Harry pulled Henrietta close as a nvorkthek’d head floated lazily by–its eyes shrieking obscene strings of prime numbers.

“I love you,” he said. “I’ve loved you since the first time I Scooped on you at the Wergity Wergle.”

Congealed blood washed over Henrietta’s face, chased by a wave of maggots riding scooters.

“Oh Harry,” she sighed, allowing her body to disintegrate into a shmerglesperg powder in his embrace…

Now, I’m not saying you can’t set up a scene like that to be experienced as warm and meaningful. But it’s going to take an INSANE amount of work to get the reader comfortable enough with congealed blood and whatever a “shmerglesperg powder” is to make the scene feel romantic.

If you want a warm, romantic scene–lean into it. Know the patterns–the tropes–that make the genre successful. Intentionally choose the shortcuts you’ll take to establish a setting and emotions without disrupting the (much more important) story flow. Know exactly how you’re setting expectations and breaking expectations to get exactly the effect you want:

Harry pulled Henrietta into a shadowed alcove, and her composure finally broke. He held her in the darkness as she quietly sobbed–soft sounds of Lord Andrash’s party floating up from below.

“I don’t think I can do it,” she finally whispered. “I’m not strong enough.”

Harry just held her quietly.

“You might be right,” he finally said. “I’m not supposed to say that, but you’d know I was lying if I said anything else.”

Henrietta gasped a small laugh through her tears.

Harry held her tightly. “But I’ll see it through to the end with you.”

See? Mostly trope–with a slightly unexpected trope to keep things interesting. Give the readers what they want. If they stayed with you this far, they deserve to be entertained. They don’t want to be distracted from the warm, comforting emotions they expect by incredibly original (if disturbing) ideas like maggots riding scooters.

Pick your battles. Know how original you want and need to be. Know how much familiarity to give your readers to deliver on the promises you make.

New writers’ instinct to seek originality isn’t wrong–it’s incomplete. The key is to see the tropes, comprehend them, and then be deliberate about when and how you follow tropes. Yes, we need originality, but we also need skill and good judgment about when to insert something unexpected and when to honor the readers’ expectations.

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