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Trope Avoidance

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Incanus, Jun 4, 2015.

  1. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I don't think you can define the creativity or quality of something based on what isn't there. That a story avoids tropes tells you nothing about the story or about the way it delivers.

    To me, the conversation feels like a red herring. It's like chefs arguing about whether it's better to prepare chicken or duck. Maybe you can find a way to win the argument, but it wouldn't do anything towards making you a better chef.

    There's a way to make elves awesome. There's a way to screw it up. What can't that be said about?

    Tropes can often be lazy writing because we tend to think of them first. But they also give readers a sense of familiarity. Elves and dragons take less "work" for readers to process, which leaves you more of that mental space to do new things with your story. It would be a lot to ask readers to dive into a story and care about all eight of your magical races if you didn't mix some of the familiar in with the strange.

    What's important, I think, is to start with that core concept lying underneath your story and finding ways to support it. Familiar tropes can offer some of that support, or not, but it's the core concept that matters, that sets the barometer for the needs of your story. When we talk about avoiding tropes, or embracing them, it's important to understand that we're talking about redesigning the core around that stipulation.
     
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Sorry, I don't want to be flip, but to me at least, the answer is simply become a better writer. Which means the question boils down to "How do I become a better writer?" Most would say the simple answer to that is write.

    As with any job/hobby, like writing, a person decides to try, there are many tiny tasks that are required to perform that hobby. And when you first pick up a job/hobby you are overwhelmed by how many things you have to focus on and keep track of. It's like trying to juggle thirty balls.

    The more you practice the more of those tiny tasks fade into the background, mostly the fundamental and basic ones like grammar, story structure, scene structure. Those are done almost automatically and thus draw almost zero focus. This leaves more focus to spend on tasks such as playing with tropes, themes, just generally making the story good. And that only comes about through practice.

    For example, when I first started driving, it had my complete focus. I always had my hands on ten and two and flicked my eyes from mirror to mirror every few seconds. I was very conscious of my distance from other cars and my speed. Because I was focus on doing all these things all at the same time, I drove slowly and driving was a chore.

    After 20 years of driving, doing all these things draws minimal focus from me. I still do all of them, but it's all in the background now. With all that left over focus, I can do other things on top of the basics. I can look to change lanes to speed up my journey. I can look ahead and behind, past the cars directly in front and behind me, to make assessments on my situation and determine what to do next.

    I can think about writing when I drive, because I've practised driving so much that the little stuff doesn't require effort to do any more, so I can focus on a multitude of other things.

    How do you write a trope well? There's no one answer, because each situation is different. It depends on things like theme, what characters do you want to play with, what type of story your telling, your setting, your plot, your genre, and whether your name is Alfred E. Newman.

    Take a look at these three movies, Alien, Jaws, and Friday the 13th. Fundamentally they are all the same story. It's the monster in a house story, with all the tropes associated with it. They each have an unseen monster, with a group of people trapped in a seemingly confined space. They deal with sin, and those who commit it die. In the end they have a lone survivor that must defeat the monster.

    Even though they follow all the tropes, why are Alien and Jaws highly regarded and Friday the 13th not?
     
  3. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Yes but...

    only perfect practice makes perfect.

    Tropes can be like crutches and make you lazy and you can use them and become dependent on them in a negative way without knowing it, unless you are aware and concerned about them.

    The driving analogy is perfect. If you get bad habits in driving, and do them for so long they become second nature they can be very hard to get rid of. Not only that, skills evolve and change and require updated. A driver who has done something for a long time and takes that location/maneuver for granted is in many situations more dangerous than a driver who is focused and vigilant because they are encountering the situation for the first time.

    And many jurisdictions mandate that professional drivers take updated driving courses that cover the basics again, in new fresh ways to make sure they are safe on the roads. There is actually tons of data on the subject.

    So learning what a trope for your genre is, is quite important. If you can't spot the problem you can't fix it, or at least make the decision to fix it or leave it in wisely.

    Taking the value of a trope for granted is a big risk for any writer who is working in genre with a significant history. Some genres are more at risk of this than others, and it can hurt you in the market as well. Right now, for instance, is a tough time for thriller writers to rely on Islamic terrorists for their antagonists.

    PS- in the modern world you no longer hold your hands at 10 and 2 for safety. That is an old standard developed before power steering and airbags. The new standard (for quite a while now) is 9 and 3. Which perfectly illustrates why one should be aware of ingrained tropes and constantly re-evalute and often discard them.

    Holding the steering wheel at '10 and 2' is dangerously outdated - Business Insider
     
  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I'm actually very much against the idea that "it's okay if you're self-aware". I also don't see how minimizing a trope would make it better. At the end of the day, you're still using it.

    I also don't think something being formulaic or derivative is bad on it's own if the formula works.

    Can I "favorite" thread posts? Because I so agree with this sentiment.

    Also, this.
    I generally think tvtropes does more harm than good to a writer/critic. It dumbs down critical thinking to identifying recurrences.
     
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2015
  5. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Look, I don't have much of a problem with tropes in my writing right now. I like the ones I use because I've made them my own, and because I've sat down and thought about whether or not they're working for me. Though I appreciate the multiple insinuations that I must just be writing with tropes really badly if I don't think cliche-centric writing is a 100% good idea 100% of the time.

    But at one point, when I was 16 or 17, I stumbled across Limyaael's fantasy rants. I had never heard of tropes or seen fantasy dissected in this way, and it was immensely helpful to my writing. She pointed out aspects to common tropes and the way they're used that didn't make sense, or weakened character interaction, or made the world more shallow. I began to jettison plot points and archetypes that I didn't care about but felt had to be there, like Big Bad Villains and Quests for Things and sparkly magic of various sorts. I think that analysis like this, which is basically what trope-talk boils down to, can be especially helpful for new writers and people who want to look deeply at structure or themes or what have you. I can clearly see how it helped my writing back then.

    So you are welcome to tell me that it's a bad idea and will only lead to terrible writing but, uh, it definitely worked for me. Yes, of course it was all ultimately just about learning to write better, but part of that was gaining knowledge about what other authors have done in the genre and having the language to talk about this stuff. I don't understand how it would be better to ignore tropes forever just because the terminology has been overused sometimes.
     
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  6. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    I still prefer to look at the 'trope' concept as one tool out of a hundred in my writing tool-box. It's a crude tool. It's certainly not an all-purpose tool. But it has its uses and I won't simply throw it away, even if others have not found it particularly helpful.

    I want to write, and I want to learn as much as I can about it as I do so. I've improved a little, and I want to improve more.
     
  7. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    No, it isn't. Nobody is in danger of injury and/or death if you use a trope badly. At absolute worst, they're out of pocket the cost of the book.
     
  8. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Failure is failure.

    But that is a pretty funny stretch.
     
  9. That is a bit of a stretch there. Besides aren't analogies not supposed to be applicable in every case, or was this a TiC comment and I missed something.
     
  10. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Well, one has two choices. One can be self aware or not. Surely you are not advocating that one be oblivious to one's writing.

    Being self aware does not mean you will solve the problem for certain, it means you have a chance to solve the problem.

    No it means it is forumulaic or derivative. Which are polite ways of saying unoriginal.

    Now say you are an agent or editor. And say you are reading a synopsis or outline and you come to the conclusion that the book is forumlaic or derivative. Do you think you are more or less likely to buy that book?

    Do you follow any agents of publisher's blogs? Do you know what they say about derivative or original work? Do you see any of them looking for "more of traditional trope X"?

    How do you think when an agent sees the strong female character being an assassin? Do you think that helps sell the book or do you think they roll their eyes and think "female assassin #567...next manuscript please?"

    Do you see them use the words like fresh or original, or new or unique in their asks? They ask for "new voices" and "unique twists" on old themes. You don't those things by simply trotting out traditional tropes without approaching them in a new way.
     
  11. But doesn't all of this depends on what one means by original? Because assassins are overdone in general, and are often done poorly, I think the problem isn't the lack of originality, it's poor execution. Take the female assassin example, the problem a lot of writers have is they don't have a cogent answer for why the assassin is an assassin. Some have her be orphaned, which is great, but aren't there other less dangerous occupations (whoring, being a maid, and other ones) for an orphaned girl? Which I think is why there is an eye roll at female assassins. Besides, there are only so many original origins a character can have in a medieval fantasy setting.

    Even still, trotting out a trope without something new is a symptom of bad and inexperienced writing. Utilizing a trope, even doing it straight, isn't if there is a new wrinkle that isn't a subversion or TiC reference to the trope.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    So I was walking through LAX this morning and looked at the newstand. Full of completely original non-forumlaic works by James Patterson.
     
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Sure, perfect practice, which is part of my point. Don't focus too much on this one singular issue and instead focus on the broader scope of your skills. I mean I've read plenty of stories where the writer is trying super hard to subvert the trope and do all the things you're supposed to not do with them, but they don't have the writing chops to do it. And they still end up falling into the bad execution of tropes category. Give a carpenter a hammer and they'll build you a beautiful shed. Hand it to a shelp like me and all you'll end up with is a pile of bloody wood and a urgent call to 911.

    Bad habits like constantly over obsessing about things like tropes, cliches, and originality?

    If an experienced driver, like an experienced writer, gets themselves into trouble, it's more likely they'll have the knowledge to get themselves out of the jam. The inexperienced person will probably just stare blankly and just mumble Frak before the spit hits the fan. My point wasn't about not being focused or not being vigilant. It was about being able to focus on more things and process more information because with experience, the small stuff no longer requires as much focus and processing power.

    Sure, but this applies to the broader scope of know what archtype your story fits into, what archtype your characters fit into and knowing has been done before and is similar to what you want to do.

    Ok sure, how does this relate to writing? Just because there's a modern standard, doesn't automatically invalidate older works or styles of writing.
     
  14. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    And how much time do you think James' agent or editor thinks about taking on that work? ;-)

    What do you think his query letter looks like?

    Unfortunately my name is not Child.
     
  15. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I pretty much agree with you. My argument is that you should be careful in your use of tropes, and self-aware that you are using them, so it is conscious decision to use them for the right reasons, at the right time.

    But I do think agents and publishers, and the public, look for new and original work. Especially from authors who are not a brand.

    I also know that agents and editors will reject work based on seeing a trope they think they have seen too much of lately.
     
  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Regardless of what some blog you read stated, agents, editors, and publishers seek only one thing - writing that will sell.

    When considering originality versus formula, it seems logical to me that formula makes more sense if you want to create a career as a writer.

    1. Formula is known to work. People have already bought and enjoyed books exactly like it. Original may or may not work.
    2. If you create formula, a reader who likes your work will likely like all your works. If each of your works is original, the reader will have to evaluate each one individually.

    Just seems to make sense to me...
     
  17. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Fortunately I do more than just read blogs, agents sites, and publishers sites etc. I get to talk to people in the industry quite frequently. Nonetheless I think it is polite and fair to refer to public sources where you can seek out the information on their own.

    But all that aside, once you published and have created a brand, and have created your formula for success by all means keep working it until it doesn't work any more.

    But if your goal is to convince an agent, editor or reader to buy your work for the first time, when you don't have a track record, you need to stand out. Following tropes or deploying them in the traditional manner doesn't do that. Can you imagine how many times an agent sees a letter suggesting someone's work is perfect for GRRM fans?

    I would say that use of formula can lead to a good living in the romance genre because the different marketing structure there. I don't see any indication it works in Spec Fic or Thrillers for new writers, the other genres I have some knowledge of.

    Since most of the people on this site as I understand it are not yet making their living at writing, that is how I tailor my comments. If you want to discuss how an author can avoid mid list slumps, or how an author can move up in advances as their career goes on, or how to break into the NYT bestseller list, or how to get those coveted number one slots, or how recent changes in publisher marketing is impacting top selling authors... those are different topics.
     
  18. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Fortunately, I'm far more concerned with how readers will think of my stories than with how agents and editors will. Frankly, trad publishing has no idea what readers want, and while all they really care about is what sells, it's actually what sells to bookstores, not readers that they're thinking of. Bookstores are the real customers of publishers and authors' careers are determined by how many of their print books the bookstores will order. Bookstores don't care about what is new or fresh or original. They are about what actually moves off of their shelves. But none of that really has anything to do with the discussion.

    The problem here seems to me is that some people have an underlying assumption that tropes = predictable and unoriginal while no tropes = fresh and original. This is not true. A work by a skilled writer that is not afraid to put their own personal spin on a time tested trope is just as if not more likely to be fresh and original than a work by a skilled writer who avoids or subverts tropes. Tropes have nothing to do with originality. Ideas have nothing to do with originality. Storytelling elements have nothing to do with originality. Everything has been thought of before. There is nothing new under the sun... except individual people. The only place originality can come from is the author. If the author has a fresh and compelling voice, their uniqueness will shine through whether they utilize tropes or not.
     
  19. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Only fortunate in the sense that it allows you to escape a discussion that might reference anything other than your own subjective opinion on an issue.

    So let me understand this, your contention is that traditional publishing spends all that money surveying and studying readers to see what they will buy and this has lead them to a place where they have "no idea" what readers want. Which is exactly how they continue to make really good profits, because they don't understand their customers. That makes sense.

    Your theory about bookstores being the real customers and how publishers and bookstores operate is simply factually untrue. Having a basic understanding of how many books are now sold online and how book returns work makes your suggestion look downright silly. Online sales is now the largest proportion of how books are sold and you suggest that publishers only care about bookstores? Seriously? Come on...you are pulling our leg right?


    I would ask you to show that someone in this thread actually said that, because I didn't see it, but I see you have tried to innoculate yourself by saying that it is an "underlying assumption." No one on this thread has said that. Perhaps on this point you are arguing with yourself? Or is that argument just a straw man?
     
  20. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Sorry, but it seems like you're the one in ignorance here if you actually think trad pubs spend much at all on studying readers. Maybe a publisher here or there does something. There are a few that are actually good, like Baen, at interacting with readers. But for the most part the Big Pubs and their imprints don't have the faintest idea, nor do agents. If they knew how to appeal to readers and knew how to effectively sell to readers, far more books would be big successes. It's really all a guessing game. They're throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something will stick.

    And yes, I am perfectly well aware of the amount of books being sold online these days. That's why I'm going to self-publish. However, trad pubs have been fighting that transition tooth and nail from the beginning. That's why they colluded to raise ebook prices. Trad pubs are still fighting it. They would much rather the industry be predominantly print based and brick and mortar store based, as that's the aspect they have the most control over.

    Of course no one said it. If they had actually admitted it then I wouldn't have had to point it out. But the arguments being made clearly come from a point of view inherently biased against "tropes" in general.
     
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