T is for Tropes
She found herself keenly wishing she had a weapon in her hands. She could go back into her room and get the table lamp, but that was about it, and that only thing it was likely to break if she hit someone with it was itself. If this were the movies, she’d have a halberd collection or something mounted helpfully in the hallway, or she’d be a ninja who knew how to kill a man with a hard-boiled egg. God damn the movies! —Heat
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In the movies, this would be young Olivia’s cue to devise some sort of daring escape, probably killing her captor in the process, although he would keeping popping up sporadically like some demonic Billy Bop’em doll, until she finally, what? Dropped a giant satellite dish on him? Shot a rusty cannon at him? And then she would stand triumphant on the side of the mountain with the wind in her hair and utter some unbelievably bad-tasting joke (“He had to catch a call,” in the case of the dropping satellite dish, and maybe that old tried-and-true, “He’s fired,” in the event that she went along with the cannon). Ideally, she should also have a good-looking guy under her arm, but in any case, she would definitely have all the other captive women in some state of undress scrambling for their freedom down the mountainside before her as the music swelled and the end credits began to roll.
This was not the movies. –Olivia
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We all know what a trope is, even if we’re not all familiar with the word. It’s a plot device, an overused storytelling element, a cliché. I’ve touched on tropes in these posts before—most notably as Aliens Who Don’t Wear Clothes, Aliens Who Speak Perfect English and just Aliens—so before I go much further into this article, I’d like to go on record and say that I don’t think all tropes should be avoided. I’m not even sure they can be avoided.
In my extremely unprofessional opinion, good storytelling doesn’t have to begin with an original idea. How many truly original ideas could possibly be left out there anyway? Good storytelling is taking an old theme and putting a unique twist on it, recreating rather than recycling ideas. All of my books can be adequately summed up by ‘Boy Meets Girl’ were it not for the fact that the boy in each case is a demon or a minotaur or an alien bug. I use a lot of tropes when I write, although I’m rarely conscious of them until the editing phase. And I don’t always take them out when I discover them. There’s a time and a place for certain tropes, or as my mother used to say, clichés are clichés for a reason. Sometimes, a damsel will need to be in distress and that’s okay. Flailing about or fainting as her only way of dealing with it, however, is not okay.
So there are good clichés and bad clichés and sometimes the only difference lies in how the subject was handled. Having said that, there are a few tropes that I would be happy to see die in a fire and because this is my blog, I’m going to share them with you. We’ll call it R Lee Smith’s Top Ten Lists of Tropes that Piss Me Off. Catchy, ain’t it?
10. You’re taking this way too well. I see this more often in action or horror genres, but it does pop up in romance now and then, especially paranormal romance. Say you want to write a love story between a lady and a werewolf. The object is to get the two of them in bed, so neither one can flip out too much about the other, so instead there’s either a token, “Whoa, werewolf,” moment or no reaction at all. Same goes for the heroes who take alien invasions, zombie apocalypses and ninja attacks completely in stride. I saw a motorcyclist wipe out in front of me once. I didn’t panic and I like to think I handled myself well, but I’d be lying if I said my adrenaline wasn’t up and all I did was hold a towel on a guy and call 911. If your character is a soldier or a demonologist or a high school teacher and therefore accustomed to staring death and weirdness in the face on a daily basis, that’s one thing, but most of the stories that follow this trope make a point of having the hero/ine be as vanilla as they come and just caught up in events beyond his/her control.
9. The mindless monster. This is what’s wrong with most of the horror books and movies you will ever read or see. In an attempt to really sell the scarability of the creature, the writer sets it on a motiveless, unstoppable rampage. The bog monster who has managed to hide from human eyes for a hundred years suddenly commits itself to killing all eight of the promiscuous teens who have blundered into its bog, teens who would have blundered back out again in an day or two if it had just waited them out. The T-Rex who has just successfully taken down a gallamimus drops a guaranteed meal to chase after some snack-sized humans. The two-headed hellhound that eats, at my rough estimate, three times its weight in panicky people over the course of a single slaughter-filled night. Zombies can get away with relentless killing, as can hive-minded aliens, vengeful revenants, pretty much anything that has a plausible reason to want to kill everything it sees. It’s the monsters who don’t have a reason and do it anyway that honk me off. Look, animals hunt for very basic reasons and when those needs are met, they stop. Even sharks don’t eat and eat and eat and eat. As for monsters (or the humanity-challenged, as they prefer to be called), if they’re thinking, reasoning creatures, they need to be written that way and not just kill everything that moves because their Saturday is open.
8. It’s over, moving on. This happens in all media formats and all genres, but I’m watching a horror movie right now, so that’s what I’m going to use as an example. The mindless monster has just been horribly killed, for real this time, and the sole survivors—the hot hero and hotter heroine—are gasping for breath over its mangled and perhaps charred corpse. They have seen their closest friends killed and mutilated. They have had to do some killing and mutilating themselves. They ought to be traumatized halfway to a coma, but instead, the guy cracks a joke, the girl laughs and they start to make out, ankle-deep in monster innards. Hey, I like a happily-ever-after as much as the next person and I realize most readers expect one from a romance, but if the heroes don’t feel they need to be emotionally involved in the story, why the heck should I? A monster-rampage is not something you brush off with a pun and a kiss, and I don’t care how good the kiss is (or how bad the pun is). When you dismiss the ordeal your characters have had to come through, you are dismissing your own book.
7. The 200 page misunderstanding. I have completely lost my patience with this one. When I see it in a book, I snap that sucker closed and trade it in. When I see it in a movie, I walk out. There is precious little so insulting to a reader/watcher/whatever’s intelligence as the 200 page misunderstanding. Misunderstandings happen and I realize that it isn’t always easy to start talking it out, especially if one of the affected parties was being deceitful in some fashion to begin with, as is ridiculously often the case. I get it. I do. But for God’s sake, if you can clear up the whole thing just by shouting, “He was my brother! I can hug my brother, you jealous dick!” just do it. No misunderstanding should last more than a few chapters unless you’re playing it deliberately for laughs.
6. The laughing villain. As a young nerd, I not only played tabletop role-playing games, I invented one. (As a harbinger of written things to come, my sourcebook is over 2000 pages long.) However, I never played Dungeons and Dragons, though, because of their total lack of realism. Never use a gelatinous cube to kill a paladin when physics will do, I always say, but I digress. Although I never played D&D, I was thrilled when the movie came out because a) I love bad movies, b) I love movies with dragons in them and c) I love Jeremy Irons, who played the evil villain. I had so much hope. Right up until his introductory scene when he came cackling down the stairs with outflung arms and stood laughing into the camera for several sustained seconds. Oy. Look, I have humorous thoughts now and then. I have been known to let out a titter that I’m sure seemed completely random and perhaps a bit unnerving to those around me. But never in my life have I bwa-hahaha-haaaed my way through my own house because I was just that tickled by my own evil genius. You can’t take a cackling villain seriously. You just can’t. And without a plausible villain, there simply is no tension. Villains can laugh, of course. Heath Ledger’s Joker had a terrifying sense of humor, but when he laughed, you knew it was because he found something genuinely funny, which meant very bad things were about to happen. So let your villain laugh…just make sure there’s actually something to laugh about, otherwise you get a villain who is…
5. Evil…but not too evil. Everyone has different thresholds for how bad the bad guy ought to be, and certainly not everyone believes severed heads and ripped bodices belong in a romance, but I’m one of those who thinks the Big Evil ought to be, well, evil. Not rude, not mean, evil. No, he doesn’t have to drink children’s tears or read the Necronomicon by the light of a crackling puppy-fire, but neither does he seduce the heroine when he can just order his minions to have her bathed and brought to his chambers. Look, I’m not a complete sociopath (despite all evidence to the contrary). I don’t want bad things to happen to my heroes. But as a writer, I have to want what all my characters want and that includes the villain, which means that when he has his enemy in his power, he should not hesitate to torture, ravish or kill if that is what he wants to do. If I pull his punches because I don’t want my heroes to get hurt, not only does he fail, but I fail.
4. Accelerated growth. There are a few things I would like to get off my chest and this seems like a good time. I believe in mothman. I believe in ghosts. I believe there could be dimensional rifts of a sort that could allow other beings access to our world. I believe in the supernatural, the paranormal, the unhuman. But I do not and can not believe in accelerated growth. That is unsupportable, undefendable and just plain stupid. Mass does not come from nothing. If you let a tentacle nightmare out of a jar, it does not grow to be ten stories tall without consuming matter to the equivalent of a ten-story building (and even if it did, it still couldn’t do it overnight without splitting its over-stretched skin or bursting into flames from the heat of its over-active digestive system). The overnight clone, the overnight pregnancy, the overnight anything—all crap. And while in most cases I like to cover my self-published ass by saying that a good writer can make even a bad trope work in the right circumstances, no, not in this case. Accelerated growth is always wrong. Never do it.
3. Inappropriate levels of competence. This is nothing but accelerated growth on an intellectual rather than a physical level. Let me just say that a hero is supposed to know what he’s doing and if it’s been established that he has a certain set of special skills, I’ve got no beef with him using them. What annoys me is when a hero becomes an instant expert in a field that ought to take years of study and training, like the princess who has spent virtually her whole life locked in a tower, yet two weeks later is slaughter-stabbing her way through an army of demonic knights.
2. Heroes who flip off demons. This is a staple of movies wherein the hero is supposed to be cool, so ball-bustingly over-the-top stupid-supercool that dry sarcasm and sunglasses make up 90% of his screentime. And in the movies, special effects and Vin Diesel’s rippling abs can even pull it off, but in a book, this attitude falls flat for me every time. When reading a book, I have to do two things: I have to believe the Big Evil is a threat and I have to believe the hero takes that threat seriously. Having your hero taunt the Big Evil can work as an act of defiance or heroic sacrifice, but if it’s just the latest in a string of apathetic one-liners, it’s not only not superbad and cool, it’s predictable and boring. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it also leads directly to my Number One Trope that Pisses Me Off…
1. Demons who let heroes flip them off. So you’ve written the greatest paranormal romance ever. It has everything: a sexily deadly supernatural hero, a sexily sarcastic modern heroine and the biggest and most evil Big Evil that could possibly be imagined…sort of a cross between Lord Voldemort, the big-horned dude from Legend and Cthulu. Your hero and heroine have survived several sexily sinister assaults and now they have their first face to face encounter. Big Evil strides out from his throne of bones. Your hero strides forward to meet him. Your heroine watches, sexily. Perhaps her perky breasts are heaving, I don’t know, it’s your book. Big Evil does the traditional, “Turn aside, mortal, or die. You cannot hope to defeat me,” and your hero replies (sexily), “Fuck you.” Then tells a few yo-momma jokes. And maybe moons him. And your book goes flying across my living room directly into the fireplace because having the most powerful dark wizard/demon/old god take it like a bitch instead of smiting him into a fine red mist just takes my cheese. And oh my God, replace the hero in that scenario with a cocky little kid and it takes all the cheese.