The word “trope” actually describes a figurative or metaphorical turn of phrase that swaps in a new meaning in place of the literal meaning of a word or phrase. You can get a clearer sense of the original meaning of the word at Literary Devices. But the word “trope” has taken on a new meaning, and that is as a synonym for cliché, describing a sort of standard plot device that can be easily identified in various works of fiction. The word “trope,” especially as it’s propagated across the internet’s various crowd sourced “review” sites, has taken on an entirely negative connotation so I understand that when I ask you the question, “What are your ‘tropes’?” like me, you might put your guard up.
But hey, we’re all friends here, so let’s set aside the negative connotations, and the actual definition of the word, and be honest with ourselves in looking at not the clichés we keep going back to in our writing, but in the common themes that track through our work.
In the two-part PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-ending Battle, comic legend Joe Simon said in an interview segment: “If it’s a good idea and it’s funny or thrilling or whatever it is, it’s okay to do it at least eight times.”
I had to grab a piece of paper and write that down, rewinding a few times to make sure I got it right. There was something about not just the words he said but the playful way he said them that made me realize he was right.
Breaking that down, I don’t believe he meant that he would literally cut and paste whole sections of text. He didn’t mean repeating exactly the same words, but that there were certain common ideas that work more than once, that work for you more than once. I won’t try to argue his specific figure. Eight times? If you say so, Joe, but who’s counting?
In the article “How Jack Reacher Was Built” by John Lanchester, the normally critically stodgy The New Yorker took a moment to almost honestly examine one of American publishing’s great examples of new pulp in Lee Child’s mega-best selling series.
There are recurring tropes and themes. The novels roam across America, with a notable affection for places in the middle, for big, blank landscapes, for small towns where no one apart from Reacher ever wants to stop. He visits rural Nebraska, rural South Dakota in winter, back-country Texas in summer. He likes communities that, to outsiders, seem nowhere in particular. Child is a poet of diners and motels, venues that capture an itinerant’s view of America. He dramatizes the lives you glimpse through a bus window, the glance into warm buildings from the cold outdoors.
Let’s try to get past the New York elitism behind the second through fourth sentences there and why people “in the middle” might be ill-inclined toward the perceived “East Coast Elite.”
Moving on . . . There’s that word, right up top again: tropes. But the substance of the paragraph really boils down to the idea that Lee Child has found a way to tell a Jack Reacher story in particular, and a hardboiled crime thriller in general, in a certain way that works for him, and clearly works for his readers as well. Though some corners of the internet would have us believe this is a bad thing, not this corner.
What we’re seeing in this description of the Reacher books isn’t a formula. We don’t see that by page 43 thus and such will have happened, then the next killing takes place no more than seven pages later . . . that kind of thing that I think some snobby readers believe we actually do.
Okay, I’ve heard that such a thing existed in the offices of Harlequin Romance, at least years ago, but that’s most likely an urban legend—a trope of the anti-tropists, if you will. Even the so-called “formula” of Lester Dent’s that I use in my Pulp Fiction Workshop isn’t nearly that prescriptive.
What we see in that description of Lee Child’s “tropes” instead is that “He likes communities that, to outsiders, seem nowhere in particular.” That basic concept, that thing Lee Child has gone back to more than eight times now, is hardly a formula but something, I assume, that interests Lee Child. He’s interested in exploring those off-the-map locales. And the isolation works for his brand of storytelling, in which Jack Reacher has to take primary responsibility for how things wrap up. The ready availability of police, the FBI, and nosy neighbors will just get in the way of the action.
I have a recurring “trope” of my own, which you might have detected, and that’s “mother as villain,” which is at the very heart of the entire War of the Spider Queen series, and shows up in the Watercourse Trilogy as well. What would Freud say? I don’t care. This is how I’m working through shit. And maybe somewhere in Lee Child’s past was some kind of remote locale trauma—or the opposite, that he loves those places and feels comforted going back there.
Looking at a lot of Stephen King again for my Horror Intensive it’s easy to see King’s common threads: children are scary, suburbia is scary, suburban children are really scary, laid under the umbrella of “Maine writer in danger.” And you know what? I love Stephen King and I’m okay with all that. John Grisham is a lawyer who writes “lawyer in danger” novels. These are their tropes, mine might be a little weirder.
So what are yours?
Whatever they are, don’t be afraid of them. Remember, Joe Simon said, “if it’s funny or thrilling or whatever it is, it’s okay to do it at least eight times,” and he created Captain frickin’ America. If I only count Annihilation and not the other five Spider Queen books, “mother as villain” will show up at least four more times from me.
Thankfully, my mother never reads my books.