Image credit: Maxwell Air Force Base
Victoria Greene is an ecommerce marketing expert and freelance writer who considers herself naught but a minor player on the world’s stage. You can read more of her work at her blog Victoria Ecommerce.
I think it’s interesting to note that I chose this stock photo because my weary morning-blurred eyes first read the sign as saying ‘Composing Complex’ and I found that appropriate for a piece about storytelling. Shakespeare did some complex composing, did he not?
Theatrical aside aside (was it an adequate opening hook?), I’m going to talk about the plot equivalent of stock imagery; yes, tropes. Where once trope was used to mean the stylistic use of figurative language, it is now essentially taken to mean something akin to a narrative staple— something an avid reader will see crop up in some form over and over again across the literary landscape.
(We’re using the latter formulation, I should stress, because we’re reasonable adults who don’t fight well-established semantic drift.)
The wrathful jilted lover. The best friend’s betrayal. The classic hero. The evil monologue of a villain at the zenith of their power. The scheming politician with an insatiable lust for control. Each one is a template used for everything from dark fantasy novels to cheesy rom-coms.
When I first learned about tropes, I recoiled from them. Such things are the height of laziness, I determined in my grand wisdom; only a dullard would lean on such crutches. I also hated gingerbread as a child. It clearly took some time for my brain to begin functioning properly.
After all, the heavy hitters of the writing world have always embraced the broad strokes of tropes, and for good reason. Here’s what my younger self didn’t realise about them:
Tropes Ring True
It’s tempting to believe that our individual stories are profoundly unique (and they kinda are on aggregate), but the component parts are much the same. Since stories work through resonant commonalities, and there’s only so much variation in the human condition, it’s powerful to return to the things that speak to the struggles and triumphs of the average life.
Isn’t that what Shakespeare did, and what playwrights do to this day? Despite the thorough intellectual analysis that deservedly goes into the works of the Bard, he wasn’t a highbrow sort, and his plays were closer to the soaps of his time.
It certainly wasn’t a University education that inspired him to toy with language as he did, throwing suffixes to and fro and eventually proving an inspiration for tech startups everywhere in their quest for snappy names to trademark (as fox begat foxship, so too do short words attract domain-freeing suffixes).
Remember Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke with’ campaign (see below)? It was a huge hit, despite being incredibly simple and playing upon our basic desire to be good, generous people and connect with others. In general, Coca-Cola has always been entirely happy to go big with emotion, not worrying about being seen as schmaltzy.
Playful, bold, and strongly emotional, Shakespeare deployed an ingenious wit to confront the basest facets of our nature; imagine what might have become of his stories had he shied away from anything too obvious or mainstream. Forbidden love has been a familiar tale since time immemorial, so Romeo and Juliet would never have met.
Familiarity Allows Subversion
When I talk of storytellers loving tropes, I don’t mean to suggest that they are generally willing to simply reproduce them in a fill-in-the-blanks fashion. Instead, they use them as base material, molding and breaking them as they see fit.
Start with a generic hero ordinarily scheduled to discover their grand destiny and experience trials and tribulations on their way to find love and save the world— then add, subtract, and rearrange. Perhaps it turns out midway through the story that the protagonist isn’t actually The Chosen One. It was the quirky wisecracking sidekick all along!
If you watched Super Bowl LII, you’ll probably recall Tide’s attempted takeover of the advertising arrangement. It went down so well because it took a set of skits and characters that viewers would already recognize and turned it on its head.
Now, sure, the obvious subversion of a trope is also something of a trope in itself… but you’ll never escape that issue. Anything that works very effectively in a narrative will become a trope sooner or later. What matters is that writing a tale using a boatload of tropes gives you a vast realm of opportunities for deviation, making things entertainingly unpredictable.
Time Isn’t Unlimited
Even the most prolific author doesn’t have enough the raw output to meticulously whip up masterworks without falling back on familiar formats on occasion. And why would they want to? Efficiency is a good thing. The world runs on reuse, now more than ever before.
Cloud computing reuses assets all over the place. Open-source software sees widespread cooperative coding through sites that see people grab established functions and adjust them as they see fit. We don’t need to figure things out if we can find tutorials on YouTube.
The same is true for branding. As an ecommerce evangelist of sorts, I’ve seen brands do great work customizing store templates. Take MVMT, for example— their homepage is crisp and clean and a contemporary masterpiece of pared-back visual storytelling:
And for strategy, you do market research so you can see what’s been done, and what’s being done, so you can figure out what you can do better. You don’t start from zero.
We are fundamentally lazy creatures, and we don’t much like to do the boring busywork of everyday life. We want the basic stuff done and out of the way so we can get to the fun parts. That’s what tropes are all about— saving us from reinventing the wheel.
(You may ask yourself: “Did they choose a watch company as an example because this section is about time?”, but I couldn’t possibly comment. OK, yes. Yes I did.)
It’s All Been Done
“There is nothing new under the sun”, reads a claim from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and in a basic compositional sense, it’s true. Just as we are rearrangements of old particles, so too are today’s stories revisions of ancient recitals, borrowed, half-remembered and renewed over countless generations.
To use a cookery analogy, narrative tropes are volunteer tomatoes— they didn’t need to be contrived, they just showed up uninvited in every plot (excuse the pun) and could not be denied because they’re delicious and you can use them in almost anything. And since there will never be truly original ingredients, no matter what you cook, there’s no sense in avoiding them.
(If you dislike tomatoes, the aforementioned analogy probably didn’t work for you. Please imagine a staple foodstuff that suits your preferences instead.)
Learning the Tropes
A writer learns to write well by reading as much as possible. They soak up the styles of all their favorite authors, mix them together, test different combinations, and eventually find themselves able to offer a compelling view of their own.
But the styles don’t just reduce to turns of phrase, or voices, or themes. They encapsulate tropes aplenty. Stephen King, for instance, loves the run-on panicked oh no something has gone wrong very wrong probably because of a monster and things are so bad that i refuse to punctuate stream of consciousness, and colorful colloquialisms, and corrupted childhood.
Any author you can imagine will have their own set of tropes, some built from previous tropes and some taken wholesale from their inspirations. Figuring out what elements you like in a story is just a part of the maturation process.
So don’t worry about tropes, and don’t fear that your written musings are quite been-there done-that, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Keep writing, keep stitching together the narrative beats that you love, and one day you’ll realize that you’ve created something different enough to truly count as yours alone.