Leave a comment

Lessons from the Aether: Tropes vs. Instances and Aggregates

Tweet of the Day: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Reveals an Ugly Truth


I’ve discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s work before, usually on my Space for Rent posts, but after seeing both the latest video in her series and reading the article  linked to above (see Tweet of the Day), I think we can extract at least one useful lesson for writers. First the video, then the lesson:



Did you watch it? Good. Now the obvious lesson would be, “Don’t do X” but I believe, as the article reminds us, that while tropes are tools and can be easily justified within the framework of any one story, since no story occurs in a vacuum, the sheer weight of repetition (which ironically makes a trope a trope) can turn an edgy story read like one more instance of lazy writing. Using tropes like rape or murder (especially of women) to create instant drama, without proper context around the event, the people (specially the victim) affected or the environment it occurs in robs the trope of its power/meaning and can readily turn off readers.

Seeing a dead love one stuck in a fridge by an evil bastard can be quite shocking, once. When, like the distress damsel, it simply the ready made excuse to kick of the adventure, it loses its power to shock us. Even attempts to play with the trope can fall flat if they don’t outright subvert it where it counts.

And their are two reasons why writers fall into using tired cliches in their writing: genre convention and instance excuse. Genre convention boils down to, “everybody in genre X does it so why can I?” The trope has become, for whatever reason, part of the genre and the writer comes to believe they have to include it or else readers will reject their story. But that will only happen if in fact the trope is key to the genre. Stuffing a dead woman in a fridge or having a princess kidnapped at the beginning of the story may seem like essential parts of the genre (modern day comic books and adventure RPGs respectively) but any close examination will dispel belief.

The second is the “instance” excuse, as in “In this instance or particular story/narrative.”  It is very easy to defend any element within a well constructed (I didn’t say written) story based on what is present in the story. But when you pull back and see the story in a large context, i.e. the aggregate and spot a larger pattern, this defense its loses power very quickly.  It simply boils down to the reason stated above to the detriment of the story.

So the lessons so far:

  1. Tropes are tools.
  2. No story occurs in a vacuum.
  3. It is easy to turn off your readers if you abuse a trope.
  4. Not all tropes common to a genre are a necessary part of that genre.
  5. Again, no story occurs in a vacuum and if it sounds like your doing what everybody else is doing just to follow a trend without proper context, it is best to abandon it.

As always, these lessons are not rules and are meant to provoke discussion rather than a how to write anything. But don’t be afraid to engage in the discussion, that is the only way anyone of us really learns and grows as writers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: