What labels me, negates me. – Friedrich Nietzsche
First, isn’t that an awesome poster? A really amazing breakdown of the most common tropes of the storytelling craft. A friend of mine linked this on Facebook, and I was suitably impressed. It’s damn cool. James (ComputerSherpa over at DeviantArt) has said that he’s looking at making posters (Pro Tip: lose the movie and game logos – it’s just inviting legal trouble) and when he does, you should seriously buy one. He did a fantastic job.
So, that out of the way, let me talk about my love/hate relationship with tropes.
On the one hand, I’ve always felt that analysis and self-reflection are vital components of the writing process. To gain power over your work, it’s important to understand what you’re creating. An ability to critically analyze process is a vital part of any creative endeavor. Or as my 4th grade English teacher, the unfortunately-named Mrs. Sweatt once said: one should first learn the rules before one can properly break them. She was talking about English grammar, but it still applies.
‘Tropes,’ for those who have not been on the internet in the last five years (hey, someone could have been in a coma, you never know…) are shorthand phrases that describe a popular cliché or stereotype common to entertainment (whether that be book, comic, tv-show, anime, movie…whatever.) TV Tropes.org, which categorizes many of these tropes in wiki format, claims that tropes are not clichés…but your mileage may vary. The line between overused cliché and well-known trope is a fine one – and often completely invisible.
I have a harder time explaining why tropes annoy the holy bojangles out of me.
This reaction is very much knee-jerk and visceral. I don’t claim that it’s necessarily logical. Tropes have their uses, and are absolutely brilliant as a means of pointing out the common elements of a story, but that said I think what takes me back about them is that I am used to a slightly different kind of shorthand, or really, trade language.
That is of course what tropes are, a trade language – that particular combination of shorthand words whose common meaning may be understood but have a secret meaning known only to insiders (yes, okay since tvtropes.org is open to the public it’s not exactly secret, but it’s still a language not expected to be known to all — you have to be ‘in the know.’) Every business and society niche has trade language (in game development, for example, ‘sprint‘ does not refer to the physical act of running and in graphic design ‘PMS‘ does not happen to women once a month.) Such language is used by street gangs, nobility and secret societies alike to distinguish insiders from outsiders. The whole point is that if you’re new to the group, it will be instantly obvious as soon as you open your mouth (or write on a keyboard.)
I think it’s one of the signs of our internet culture that trade languages have increasingly been left open for public consumption and analysis. Urbandictionary.com, TVTropes.org and even searched on Google or Wikipedia can quickly illuminate the unusual meanings of popular words or phrases. Memes, L337speak and LoLcat speach are more examples of elite language – the very fact that not every ‘gets it’ is of course part of the charm. We do this in real life too, of course. We all have phrases that are shorthand for much more complicated concepts. I have one friend who uses the phrase ‘awesome sauce’ as a mark of high distinction. When something is awesome sauce it is wonderful. I know another friend who gives that phrase exactly the opposite meaning: to him, ‘awesome sauce’ is anything but awesome.
My own personal use of such language is almost invariable cautionary, and that I think it the reason that I have such a reaction to the tropes as presented above. By way of example, there’s a famous list of definitions associated with a Science-Fiction writer’s workshop known as the Turkey City Lexicon. The Lexicon describes a list of short-hand phrases often used by writers that evolved over time and highlight common problems. Almost invariably, something common enough to have its own Lexicon entry is something to be avoided, a mistake, something to be fixed. When someone says that a particular written work contains a ‘Mary Sue,’ I understand that this is not a complement. Mike and I have a trope short-hand known as ‘forgetting to ask a five-year-old child’ which was appropriated from Rules for the Overlord (another comedic analysis of popular tropes) — it refers to any plot which is so full of holes, logical fallacies and other problems that a five-year-old child could have spotted them, but which sadly made it into the final product because director/writer/producer clearly forgot to pick their own five-year-old from daycare. Mike will instantly know what I mean when I say someone forgot to ask a five-year-old, but I don’t expect anyone else to understand. (See? Trade langauge!)
The Tropes of TVTropes.org don’t seem to have this level of condemnation (or at least don’t for all of them – there are certainly entries that seem to be filled with mockery of the highest order, as well as tropes that deserve to be mocked.) So that’s where the Nietzsche quote comes in, because it often seems to me that by tearing a story to bits and neatly labeling its parts, there is a diminishment. It’s like the old joke about not visiting a sausage factory if you love sausage – or rather, want to keep loving it – but even as I write this I have to acknowledge that people who pursue and collect tropes often do so from a position of genuine interest, even affection bordering on obsession. And it’s fun. Who can argue with fun?
Ultimately, it’s my belief that tropes encompass the best and worst of storytelling – both what plays into audience expectations because it’s a successful plot point and what may fail, quite possible also because of audience expectations. Tropes are a highly valuable way to recognize the ‘rules’ of storytelling.
Knowing, of course, that we will promptly smash them to bits.