“The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” ― Terry Pratchett
‘Tis an old device.” ― William Shakespeare
According to Merriam-Webster, a trope is a noun signifying “a word or expression used in a figurative sense,” “a common or overused theme or device,” or “a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages.”
I’m not going to give you the potted history of the Quem quaeritis Trope or how it might be the original of the modern-day musical. It’s an extremely esoteric journey which I learned in high-school that invokes both Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan. Today, most writers know “trope” as a plot device as something that is used or, more commonly, overused on television shows or in movies. Just a brief glance at the never-ending rabbit hole that is TV Tropes will show you Giant Spiders, lost superweapons, and Frazetta Man, among many others.
In short, it’s the perfect hunting ground if you’re looking for an idea.
Okay, I can practically hear the uncomfortable shuffling and the “Errrrmmmm” that’s coming out of your right how. “Tropes are cliché and I don’t want my story to be a cliché,” you say. “I want to be fresh and original.” First, the suggestion to go looking at a trope is just to get you started if you’re stuck. Second, pick a trope and consider how you can make it your own.
Take the very first scene of “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the classic monster movie trope: kids are sneaking around, looking for a place where they won’t be disturbed. The girl – who’s cute, blonde and wearing a plaid skirt – keeps saying she hears something, while the boy insists there’s no one there and they won’t be disturbed. We all know what’s supposed to happen: the monster attacks them and while the boy might survive (and be accused of her murder), the girl is supposed to shriek and die.
Joss Whedon subverted the trope when it turns out there is a monster – it’s the cute blonde girl who is, in fact, a vampire who’s lured her prey to this spot on purpose. Cue opening titles. Watching the series now, knowing what it is, the switch is not so unexpected, but back in the spring of 1997 when it premiered, folks weren’t expecting to see a vampire right off. They certainly weren’t expecting her to be the girl whom all the conventions said should be a Sacrificial Lamb.
Set a timer, spend fifteen minutes strolling through TV Tropes and see what ideas occur to you. Seriously, set a timer because it’s very easy to get distracted by clicking on links that you’ll emerge some time later when you have to get off the computer now and have no time for writing. I put that particular site on my block list during November so the temptation is removed. Now, though, go pick something and what you can come up with. If The Butler Did It, are you doing a parody of the genre – or is the man actually a serial killer who gets himself hired as a butler, dispatches his master and then moves on to his next target? Are they seeking personal vengeance, or is it a general vendetta against the 1%? Could you gender flip and have it be the housekeeper who is responsible? The possibilities are endless.
While many say there are only a limited amount of plot types (the actual number being a source of great debate), it is how the writer uses those types and the tropes that have grown up across the centuries which make stories sing. You’ve got fifteen days before NaNoWriMo starts and endless possibilities lurking in the blank page. It is all “an old device.” Go decide how to make it your own.
That’s it for today. Join me on Wednesday when we’ll talk about beginnings, endings and middles – and, yes, that order is deliberate. If you find these posts useful, check out my book, Surviving 30 Days of Literary Madness. I’ve posted the introduction and the essay for November 10 on my site as the Amazon preview is…less than robust.