Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Trope

Because this week we're talking about plots and structure, I thought an appropriate (and $10) word would be trope. No doubt you've seen this word on agent blogs (which is where I learned it), or perhaps you know it from your MFA program. If you didn't know it, that's fine too-- that's one of the reasons it's this week's Word Up.

Apart from having a slightly gnarly sound to it, a literary trope (as opposed to a speech or mathematical trope-- Wikipedia has a ton of different ones) is a theme, or device, convention that is used to convey a certain understanding in the reader. I know that's vague, and the elephant pattern picture doesn't help things much, so bear with me. As with several other past Word Ups, trope comes from the Greek τρόπος (tropos) "turn, direction, way, related to the root of the verb τρέπειν, "to turn, to direct, to alter, to change." Okaaaayyy....so what it is? It's not a general subject or genre, like vampire fiction. You use it in your writing to convey certain signals to the reader so they understand what's going on and what to expect.

Tvtropes.com, a site I spent HOURS on the other day, says (very well):
Human beings are naturally pattern seekers and story tellers. We use stories to convey truths, examine ideas, speculate on the future and discuss consequences. To do this, we must have a basis for our discussion, a new language to show us what we are looking at today. So our story tellers use tropes to let us know what things about reality we should put aside and what parts of fiction we should take up.

Tropes in stories are:

A hero or villain
So that readers can anchor their understanding to one person and adhere to the whole mythical good vs. bad (trope alert!) style. We expect that. Every story has it.

A genre
Your readers expect a certain formula with this trope; if your story doesn't follow it then readers will feel jarred. Example: A romance story with a long sojourn of a team of scientists who comb through the city of Pripyet (close to Chernobyl) and come face to face with a ravaging beast who rips them limb to limb, while back home a girl falls in love with a nice farm hand. The farm hand is obviously a cousin of one of the scientists.)

A short story or full-length novel
If you're writing a historical epic, the trope is that it will be of an expected length--not a 4500 word short story.

The trick, they say, is to take old tropes and use them in a new way.

An example of a very, very bad trope is the deux ex machina, which is a whole other Word Up, but essentially means an act of God appears to suddenly solve your story--a sudden, silly event that has no relation to anything else. Don't use that trope. See here for a whole list of tropes NOT to use.

Instead of using the word in a sentence this week, I'm going to pick out a trope I use in my stories: that of a woman who has something to overcome. What tropes do you use?

5 comments:

Gemma Noon said...

Oh hell, I just spent an hour on TVtropes instead of working. I'm not sure that I needed a new procrastination aid, but I have a feeling I'm going to lose days on that site, in the name of "research"

Travener said...

Trope: cynical lawman seeks justice in an unjust world. I guess that's a trope.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Gemma--I hear you, I LOVE that site.
Travener- I'd say that's definitely a trope. There's a bunch of plot elements I would expect to see in such a story.

Lindsey Himmler said...

I LOVE tvtropes. I could spend hours and hours there...and often do. Many times when I think I have a brilliant idea, I look it up there. I usually find out it's neither brilliant nor original, but I can adjust it to be!

Meghan Ward said...

I will NOT visit tvtropes. I will not! ... Okay, I just did, but I'm back now. I love this word, but I'm still not really clear on what it is. I think you should do a longer post on tropes!

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