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
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 http://www.theyfightcrime.org/)
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: tvtropes.org. 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 Dragon, Big 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?