Nothing New Under the Sun?

And if I put my fingers here, and if I say
“I love you, dear”
And if I play the same three chords,
Will you just yawn and say…

It’s all been done
It’s all been done
It’s all been done before   

-Barenaked Ladies

Tropes are storytelling devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.

By J.D. Rhoades

After the recent discussions here and here about genre and the reader’s expectations, I started thinking about…well, about the genres within genres within genres. I’m talking about going  beyond the hardboiled/cozy/thriller/procedural/etc divides and considering recurring patterns of character and story (sometimes known as “tropes”) that you see in crime fiction.

A few examples:

The Wunza Story: As in “One’s a [blank] and One’s a [blank],” The Wunza story puts two often dissimilar people together and lets that tension play out against the bigger story. It’s a central pattern in romantic suspense: “Wunza beautiful, dedicated detective with the Nashville PD, Wunza handsome, brilliant FBI agent.” Crank up the differences a few notches and you get more humor in the mix: “Wunza a small town Southern girl who’s always getting into wacky scrapes, Wunza a dark and mysterious bad-ass who may or may not be a bad guy.” Make both characters the same sex and you have a Buddy Story: “Wunza ex-military doctor recovering from wounds suffered in Afghanistan, Wunza a brilliant cocaine addict who plays the violin.”

(For a hilarious “Wunza” generator, go to

Advantages: the above-described romantic tension, opportunities for fun dialogue.

Disadvantages: for romantic Wunzas, what do you do once they’ve done it? Or in the alternative, how long can you realistically keep them from doing it before the reader gets impatient? In the Buddy Wunza: how long before people start snickering that they’re gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

The Merry Band: A whole bunch of wunzas fighting crime (police procedural) or committing it (the caper story). Think CSI, NCIS, or the Dortmunder stories.

Advantages: lots of room for intra-team conflict and/or romance; even more opportunities for snappy dialogue; enjoyable to watch as it all comes together.

Disadvantages: easy to lose track of where everybody is and who’s doing what with whom.

The Shane Story: Mysterious stranger rides into town, finds bad things going on, sets them right using his fists and/or his gun, then rides away. He probably, but not inevitably, beds the beautiful damsel in distress along the way. Think:  Jack Reacher, Travis McGee.

Advantages: mythic, archetypal, or at least way larger than life character; great opportunity for cool badass action scenes.

Disadvantages: easy to make the character too invincible; suspension of belief can get more and more difficult; you’ve got to disentangle the loner hero from the love interest at the end, so he can bed the next damsel down the road. That can get a little contrived (“everyone who sleeps with the Captain dies!”), not to mention off-putting to some readers.

The Brooding Knight: A tough loner like in the Shane story, but often more tormented and reflective than a Shane. Said torment possibly comes from a traumatic experience in the past, or possibly by an ideal of justice that they cling to despite being repeatedly and grievously disappointed. May drink a lot. Think Harry Bosch, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Keller.

Many of the same advantages as the Shane story in regards to the kicking of asses; writer can (carefully) slip a little of his or her own worldview into the narrative; soulful characters can be attractive, especially to the female reader.

Disadvantages: Jesus, dude, get over yourself already.

The Smartest Guy/Girl in the Room: Also similar to the Shane story, in that the protagonist, usually an outsider, has to set things right where they’ve gone wrong, but by using his or her far-superior wits rather than physical force. Think:  Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot.

Advantages: some people really love puzzles and love pitting their wits against the SGITR.

Disadvantages: The SGITR can be kind of a dick; danger of making the clever solution so clever as to be absurd; misdirection of the reader is required to keep them interested. In short, the SGITR story is one of the hardest to pull off, because the writer has to be as smart as the SGITR.

Many stories combine tropes. For instance, A SGITR story is often paired with a Wunza story. The other half of the Wunza can be an exposition dump, that is, a person to whom the SGITR has to explain things to, thus informing the reader (Dr. Watson). In the alternative, they can be a foil to soften the SGITR’s obnoxious know-it-all-ism (Archie Goodwin). In contrast, Inspector Rebus is a Brooding Knight with his own Merry Band.

Now, as for the overarching advantages and disadvantages of  tropes:

Advantage: It’s easy to describe, pitch, and market stories based around familiar tropes.

Disadvantage: It’s easy for trope to become cliche.

While researching this post, I looked up a site my son had often quoted to me: And I have to tell you, friends, it got plumb discouraging. The site’s huge, and clicking though all the links, especially the ones involving crime fiction,  makes you wonder if  pretty much every “original” idea you ever thought you had  has already been done by someone else. You may begin to wonder if the DragonBig Bad or Magnificent Bastard  in your WIP isn’t a Wall Banger because you have a scene in which they kick the dog.

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. After all, tropes can be tools. It’s all in how they’re used. If they’re used in a lazy or uncreative way, if you’re just phoning it in, then sure, you’ve got the possibility of the dreaded Dethroning Moment of Suck. Done right, (as in the examples above from our own ‘Rati) you may be looking at a Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Which, at long last, leads us to our discussion question, our teaching moment,  of the day:

Readers: What are some of your favorite tropes? Your least favorite? Who uses them in ways that work? Writers: how do you get out of the trap that turns trope into cliche?

15 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun?

  1. Mary R

    Best wunza ever: "He’s a Pope. He’s a chimp. They’re detectives. It’s "The Pope and the Chimp", this fall on NBC. (From Weekend Update, on the original Saturday Night Live.)

  2. Rae

    Great post, and love the links, thanks….

    In terms of tropes, my least favorite is The Smartest Guy/Girl in the Room, because so often the character is, as you say, a jerk. Add that to potentially absurd plot twists and poorly executed misdirection, and you can have a real mess. I agree with you that it might be the toughest to pull off; badly written SGITRs annoy me more than just about any other type of flawed writing (except bad dialog šŸ˜‰

    My favorites are the Shane and the Brooding Knight (which I often think of as The Hopeless Quest, a la Lord of the Rings). They appeal to the part of me that would also like to have no baggage, and just roam. And kick some righteous ass.

    In terms of who pulls them off well, all the writers you’ve mentioned are fabulous – I’d add Robert Crais to the Brooding Knight category. And Lord Peter Wimsey was a great SGITR.

  3. Louise Ure

    J.D., best collection of links, ever.

    My least favorite trope is "her boyfriend is a cop/PI/forensics specialist" although I’ve fallen victim to it myself. Somehow, if you change the gender ("her best friend Camille is a forensics specialist") I hope it becomes less "trope-y."

  4. Jake Nantz

    Love the links, Dusty. Thanks. My favorite trope (and one I have used in my first and am now setting up for a second set of characters) is the Wunzas. But I love reading the differing versions of Shane–Reacher, Bosch, Keller, John Rain (who started as a Shane and then, with Dox and Delilah, became more Wunza).

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Man, Dust, this is great! This post is an absolute "keeper" for me.

    I think my all-time favorite is the Brooding Knight. Interesting that you should post this, since I wrote a little article for a crime publication recently and called it "Dark Knights on the Boulevard."

    Thanks, also, for reminding me that nothing I write will ever be entirely original. I really needed that little boost.

  6. Bob Sanchez

    Great post. At all costs I avoid writing the SGITR because I never am an SGITR unless I’m alone in the room. I rather enjoy the Merry Band type of story with off-the-wall characters.

  7. Pari

    I just spent 20 minutes on those damn links. Thanks for nothing . . . um, I mean, THANK you for the thought-provoking post.

    I didn’t look for the name of the trope but I love the victorious underdog in literature whether it’s one with incredible intelligence such as Miles Vorkosigan or a wonderfully self created sense of justice (Think Dortmunder in What’s the Worst that Can Happen).

  8. toni mcgee causey

    ohdeargod, I could spend six years on that tvtropes site alone.

    I love the underdog trope. The Manipulative Bastard. Favorite may be the Magnificent Bastard, but that’s because I have one of those in my current WIP and I kinda love him, even though he is destroying a lot of people’s lives.

  9. J.D. Rhoades

    I know, right? I nearly didn’t get the damn post done because I was clicking through links. Now my son and I have these conversations over TV that no one else in the house can understand:

    ME: Wait, is that guy gonna be a Starscream?
    THE BOY: Nah, he’s just the Dragon.
    THE GIRL: My god, you guys are SUCH INCREDIBLE DORKS!

  10. Tom

    I kinda favor the Hardest Working Guy In The Room. He’s flexible, capable of growth, and if he’s not smartest, he knows the knowledge is out there somewhere to be found.

  11. BCB

    I once listened to two writers having a conversation about how one of them was a plotter and the other said characters came more easily for her and how they both worked hard on the aspect that was not natural for them. I’ve read many books by both of them and you’d never guess either of them had trouble with ANYTHING. They agreed that writers are usually one or the other. (Wouldn’t it be nice to be both?)

    What I found interesting was the person for whom plotting came naturally said it was almost impossible for her to tell people how to plot and it drove her absolutely bonkers to listen to people talk about the different methods they use for plotting. And the writer for whom characters came easily said the same thing — she is always at a loss to explain how she does it and all the character personality helper thingies (yes, that is the proper term, but for those who are not familiar with it: enneagrams, profiling/interviews, Myers-Briggs, etc) were incredibly irritating.

    I think I must fall into the second category, because looking at the tvtropes site made me twitch. And not in a good way, thankyouverymuch, JD. I’m not sure whether character/tropes come naturally for me or whether I’ve just studied way too much psychology. Or perhaps I’m horribly mistaken and my characters are my Dethroning Moment of Suck. Right up there with my Wall Banger plot.

    I like the SGITR (provided it’s written by some who really IS the SGITR) when the character is reluctant or absent-minded about it. Like Yoda. Or the Rachael Weisz character in The Mummy. Oh! Or the ToughestGITR (Reacher) because he’s reluctant and not a bully about it. It can be done well.


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