By PJ Parrish
I was an English literature major way back in college and I now am going on record that not once did I ever encounter the word “trope.”
Now it’s possible I might have dosed off during my 8 a.m. Post-Colonial British Literature class and missed it. But all these decades later, I can safely say that the word “trope” has never taken a front seat in my writer brain. Motif. Theme. Allegory. Irony. Even synecdoche I can remember. But trope…nope.
Yet I’ve run across the word at least six times in recent months, usually in book and movie reviews, which forced me to the Google machine to find out what the heck I’ve been missing. So, to save you the trouble…
A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.
I added the red there because that second definition sort of pissed me off. One of my pet peeves is when a perfectly good word gets corrupted by misuse and comes to mean both sides of something, and thus means nothing. Examples:
Hellacious. It began life as college slang in the 1930s, a combo of “hell” and “bodacious” and it was used as a negative. “What a hellacious storm!” Now, it can mean either good or bad. Which renders it impotent.
Fulsome. It used to be negative, starting out (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) as “filling” then “tending to cause nausea,” then finally “wearisome from excess or repetition.” Now, I guess because “full” sounds good, it has come to be misused as “generous.” The beloved professor received fulsome praise. A good word gone to meh.
Okay, okay, I am being pedantic, I know. English is a gloriously elastic language. “Girl” was just a young lady once, then it became a sort of pejorative, to put women down or even men, as in “You throw like a girl.” But of late, women have (thankfully, I say) reclaimed it as a power badge. And then there is the word “fizzle.” We use it today to mean something just sort of peters out, right? In the 1500s, it meant to silently pass gas. Which is now called “crop dusting.”
But I digress. Back to trope.
As I noted above, it has two divergent definitions. At its best, a trope is a time-honored technique or classic theme. Good literary tropes honor genre traditions. At its worst, a trope is a cliché, something overused that shows a lack of original thought.
Now I for one, think “genre” itself is not a dirty word. I think of crime fiction the same way I think of ballet. (I spent 18 years as a dance critic). In ballet, there are only FIVE arm positions and FIVE foot positions. Everything in ballet emerges from that. Yet from that tight formula came love stories as old as Petipa’s romantic “Swan Lake” to the new of George Balanchine’s abstract “Agon.”
We crime dogs honor the formulas of our genre, yet the best of us, like Balanchine, color outside the lines. But here’s the point of all this: As you ponder your plot and characterizations, the hard part is distinguishing between what is a good and useful trope of our genre and what is just tired cliché. Let me give it a try and then I hope you all will weigh in, please.
The Alcoholic Detective or Cop. This is an attempt, I think, to show that the protag has a hard job or worse, hates his job. Or it’s a lazy stand-in for “tortured past” or “deep soulfulness.” Bull hockey. Now, we were guilty of this our in my first mystery, Dark of the Moon. We had our protag Louis Kincaid hitting the cheap brandy way too often. I don’t think we realized way back in 1998 that it was a cliche, but there it was. To our credit, we built on this and had Louis recognize his fault, especially when a child entered his life. If you are going to use this, it darn well be part of a very believable character arc. Teresa Schwegel created a great portrait of cop Samantha Mack in her 2005 Edgar-winning debut Officer Down.
Eager Rookie Assigned to Bitter Veteran. Way back in 1976, Clint Eastwood grumbled about being teamed up with noobie Tyne Daly who is, gasp! also a woman. (Dirty Harry: “If she wants to play lumberjack, she’s going to have to learn to handle her end of the log.”) And of course, the rookie always ends up teaching the burned-out cop a valuable life lesson. (Or she gets offed. To his credit, Harry felt really bad about this). I’d steer clear of this one unless you’ve got a really fresh slant.
The Cop or Detective With Bad Marriage or Alienated Kid. Yeah, law enforcement is tough on relationships, but this has been done to death. In the hands of a great writer (think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River), it’s deeply knitted into the plot. But don’t use this as a crutch to slap a veneer of emotional depth on your protag. I’ve seen veteran writers who should know better stumble with this one. Oh, and the divorced cop always seems to find a new hot woman to save him.
The Dumb Sidekick. A sidekick is a very useful plot device, as it gives your protag someone to talk to (dialogue is action!) and bounce ideas off. I wrote a post about creating good sidekicks a while back. Click here. But a clueless foil, put there just to make your protag look clever, contributes nothing. At best, these secondary characters should have talents and life experiences of their own. Think Spenser’s friend Hawk, McGee’s cerebral Meyer or Elvis Cole’s sociopath Joe Pike who was so cool he got his own book. And yes, we could spend a whole post here debating whether Watson is really as dense as he sometimes seems.
Good Tropes. (These are purely my taste!)
Creepy Settings. I am a sucker for anything decaying, neglected or isolated. (My favorite Nancy Drew was Clue in the Crumbling Wall). Whenever Kelly and I begin a book, we think hard about the setting, almost always leaning toward the neo-gothic. In An Unquiet Grave, we trap Louis in tunnels below an abandoned insane asylum. In Heart of Ice, it’s a ruined hunting lodge on Mackinac Island. In Island of Bones, it’s a remote private island in the Florida Gulf, peopled by a family time has left behind. I think I was influenced by Daphne du Maurier’s stories, especially Don’t Look Now, a chilling tale of a father who keeps seeing his dead child running through the dank alleyways of Venice. (Made into an eerie movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.)
Trouble in Paradise. Ah yes. Everything is beautiful, until it’s not. Agatha Christie might have started this trope when she sent Poiret on a cruise down the Nile. But this idea has been recycled with great freshness, notably by Ruth Ware in The Woman In Cabin 10. One of my favorites is Noah Hawley’s Edgar-winner Before The Fall, wherein a picture-perfect family departs Martha’s Vineyard in their private plane and only a down-on-his-luck painter and a little boy survive a crash into the ocean.
Coming Out of the Fog. This is a classic in medias res opening. A character wakes up in a place they don’t recognize. How did they get there? Why are they there? There is a feeling (vague or real) of peril. And of course, getting out is what sets the plot in motion. Sometimes the character has no memory, or can recall an abduction, being drunk or in an accident. I ventured close to cliche with She’s Not There, wherein my protag wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. And it took a lot of plot effort and thought to backstory to make it work. Tread carefully here, but it can be a really great way to fast-break your story from the gate.
Over at GoodReads, they’ve got their own list of classic tropes and some good examples of current cirme fiction under these categories:
- The Locked Room.
- We’re All Trapped Here Together!
- Help! These Kids Are Creepy
- I Think My Spouse Is Out To Get Me
- The Inheritance Plot
And last, we have to deal with…
The Unreliable Narrator. Okay, I recognize its lineage: Poe begat Roger Ackroyd who begat Holden Caulfield who begat Teddy Daniels who begat Amy Dunne who begat legions of liars. But I’m tired of the trickery. Trope or cliche? What say you?