Sunday, February 5, 2012

To Trope or Not To Trope: That is the Question

Readers come to the fantasy shelves looking for a specific kind of reading experience. They want to enter other worlds, or they want to enter worlds like this one and yet different, strange, magical. Maybe without realizing, they long for a specific set of tropes: characters, worlds, situations, or magic that resemble those in other fantasy stories they’ve read and loved.

But who wants to read the same story, with a few names changed, over and over? No one.

Writers sometimes have to perform a tricky balancing act. They have to serve up a story that can provide the pleasure readers are anticipating, while also offering something new, something surprising and unique.

To find some answers on ways writers might do this, I asked other Inkies to chime in.
Pippa Bayliss:
Using tropes is related as much to our individual style as our premise and characters are, so it's not easily buttonholed. In my experience my use of them developed as part of my world building.

Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series comes to mind as a brilliant example of using language and all forms of literary trope to enhance and create a unique world.

In my own writing, my MC uses unusual turns of phrase because that's who she is (and she's powered by my particularly unusual imagination). I try to keep her metaphors, idioms and comparisons appropriate to her age and life experience - and possibly more importantly, her nationality.

I love the rhythm of words and coming up with original ways of capturing and communicating the emotion evoked by my MC's situation, so those are my 'trope creating' moments. Sometimes they're right there and other times I lose sleep coming up with the best way to avoid cliche. Synonyms are my absolute favorite way of brainstorming - and I confess I'm partial to alliteration (in moderation ... at least, I TRY to keep it to a minimum).
Hilari Bell: 
I think we all use tropes, almost unthinkingly. Unless you're going for some very unusual setting, it's hard to avoid them. However, there's almost nothing that works better than turning a trope on its head, and doing the reverse of what's expected. On the other hand, even reversing tropes is becoming something of a trope itself. I think a writer's only real hope is to tell a story you love the way you want to tell it, and let the chips fall where they may.
Kate Coombs:
In THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS and THE RUNAWAY DRAGON, I deliberately take tropes and give them a little twist to create humor. For example, the princess is supposed to be languishing in a tower while princes vie for her hand in marriage, but she gets her friends to sneak her out, leaving the royal guards vigilantly watching over an empty tower. And the wicked witch in the woods wants to be left in peace to read romance novels, but when princes keep coming around bothering her, she rolls her eyes and rather reluctantly turns them into frogs so they'll leave her alone. I've had fun reinventing tropes!

Another way to keep tropes from making your work predictable is by creating rich characters--then even when you use tropes, the focus is on these characters who feel so real that readers love and cheer for them despite their flaws. Surprises are great, but they need to work with the logic of the storytelling and of characters' personalities. Besides, even if readers CAN predict, say, the ending of a book (um, the hero/heroine triumphs?), the road to get there can twist and turn in wonderful ways.

Some great answers here. For
myself, I too like twists. In ALIA WAKING, Alia wants very much to become a warrior, but she starts to question her goals when she sees the reality that exists along with the warriors’ ideals. Margot, in WATER SHAPER, begins as the classic romantic heroine, but her wants and needs as in individual complicate the romance she stumbles into. In my current WIPs, I find myself twisting tropes in a variety of ways, but mostly in regard to perspective. For example, is that guy really a bad boy with a heart of gold, or is he just a bad boy? And what do either of those things mean, anyway?

I did want to mention some great resources for those interested in thinking on tropes and how one might, or might not, want to use them. Try THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND by
Diana Wynne Jones and the many resources linked in “Beyond Orcs and Elvs,” an Omnivoracious interview with Stacy Whitman on writing cross-culturally.

Now, to get to some discussion. What about you? What tropes do you play with, and how do you play with them? Why do you play with them in the way you do?

Post author bio: Laura Williams McCaffrey is a full time writer and writing teacher. Her third young-adult speculative fiction novel is forthcoming from Clarion Books. She’s the author of two other young-adult speculative fiction novels: Water Shaper, selected for the 2007 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list; and Alia Waking, named an International Reading Association Notable Book. Alia Waking was also a nominee for the annual Teens’ Top Ten Books list and for Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. Laura is a faculty member at Solstice, a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, and she teaches writing and literature at Pacem Learning Community, a learning center for homeschoolers. You can visit her website at:  

1 comment:

  1. And maybe because they weren't in your mind, you didn't feel any pressure to follow their strict shape...


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