On Tropes and Training Wheels
So I had a sit and a think. Had a hot chocolate. Listened to some music. I let myself cogitate. What exactly was it we were condemning here? Let me make it clear—this was a condemnation. People don’t collect tropes because they think they’re awesome. This isn’t a reader’s group talking about their favorite author’s techniques and tricks. When you hear the word ‘trope’, I’ll bet you that it’s meant derogatively.
Should it be? I mean, I know that I’ve called authors out on it while editing. Multiple times. Hell, I’ve had people rewrite entire sections of story to avoid tropes. It’s the right thing to do. It’s what a proper beta reader and editor would do, right? Right?
First, I want to have you think about the life-cycle of a storyteller. In the beginning, we’re all imitating the stories we like. Thinking about it now, this is where ‘tropes’ are most important—not because of what we should avoid, but because of what we should use. I mean it. An inexperienced storyteller can use the tropes to hone their art while making passable pieces of fiction. Think of them as training wheels. So here’s one I’m sure you’re all familiar with: “Story opens with furry looking at themselves in a mirror.” You’ll hear experienced authors moan about this. Ugh. Overused. Overplayed. Cheap excuse for an infodump-y description. Well, want to know why it’s a trope? It’s because it works. It’s hard to find a reason for the character to be giving a description of themselves, and even if it’s a trope, at least it’s giving those newbie storytellers a reason to actually do a description.
But just as we’re starting to get more comfortable with the process of writing, we age and we learn and we progress. During the next phase of a storyteller’s life, we’ll slowly recognize those training wheels for what they are. Over the next while, we start to remove them. We become aware of the tropes, and once aware, avoid them. We hunt for ways to fit things into our stories in new and novel ways. Using the example above, instead of a mirror, we look for ways to fit in small titbits of the description into the narrative so the person experiencing the story slowly gets a whole image of the character in their mind. This is more elegant. But remember that trope we’re now avoiding? It trained us. It had us writing descriptions even before we were ‘ready’ to. We’ve described a hundred characters. Sure, we had a bad excuse for doing it, but at least we can write a description. We know what’s important to describe, and we know how to do it with style. And now that we’re learning to do it in an elegant fashion, we’re well prepared. Would we be if it hadn’t been for the training wheels?
This is the phase of a storyteller’s life where you see the most complaints about the tropes. Authors like me who’ve recognized the training wheels for what they are look back at their own stories that used them and shudder. They read other people’s stories, and those tropes immediately pull them out of the story. They edit with a scalpel to excise those tropes from everything they see and read. It’s as if we’re over sensitized to them, because we see how we used to rely on them.
And we look down on the people who still use them, even though we shouldn’t. We’re the too-cool-for-school kids with their eighteen-speed bikes, looking back at the young kids with their training wheels. We’re pointing and laughing from our comfortable older age and greater experience. And the younger or more inexperienced storytellers feel ashamed, because every time they try to remove a trope, they end up falling. Their story gets away from them, or they never find a way to describe the main character, or they end up falling onto a different trope they didn’t even know was a trope until another one of us upperclassmen laugh and point again.
There is a last phase of this life cycle, though. At the end, those of us who’ve spent enough time picking on the little kids finally grow up enough to look back at those training wheels we used to use. We pick them up and roll them over in our hands. They weren’t really bad. They were perfectly functional, we just used them badly. We take a second look and realize there’s actually something beautiful and elegant about them, if we use them just right. We go back to those tropes, and we play with them. We use them to set expectations, then break them. We hide them in our work as jokes, waiting for someone to realize they were just “trope’d” and never knew it. We brazenly base our stories off a well-known trope, but write them in such a way that it feels novel and fresh.
The best part of this story is that it’s a circle. When I write a story that uses one of those tropes in an elegant fashion, new storytellers read my story. ‘Hey, that worked’ they tell themselves. ‘It’s an easy trick! I could do that!’ Then they’ll try to emulate it. They’ll see the training wheels I’ve artfully used, and bolt them inexpertly onto their own story. It’ll work—if only just. It’ll give them an excuse to keep writing. It’ll give them a safe opportunity to learn. It keeps them from falling down.
We know the training wheels are stupid-looking and juvenile. But we’re authors. We’re thinkers and storytellers. We’re the imagineers. Remember that with just the right amount of imagination, a bicycle with two extra wheels could just as easily be called a car.