Cooking the (Right) Books — Ignoring Trope-ish Cliche
In three decades of reading and writing, I’ve come to learn there are three major areas where most authors fall flat when attempting to write a good book.
Namely, the beginning, the middle, and the end.
I realize the tone of such an observation might smack as unduly flippant but please understand that this is said not out of malice, but frustration; writing is difficult, and though we are taught the rules of grammar during our formative years, there has always been precious little instruction in the crafting of engaging fictional narratives.
Yet fiction has somehow managed to persist by leaning heavily on the interpreted lessons of those authors who have gone before.
But survival is not the same as thriving. And as I peruse the bookshelves of each bookstore (less in recent months due to the ongoing wildfire that is Covid-19), I worry that fictional writing has fallen into a bit of a spiral of relative decay, one in which the lessons learned reflect the old and outdated.
I note in my debut article that historical fiction has fallen into a rut by examining the same moments in human history, but on reflection I realize that so many other genres have done the same. Yes, there is a reason that trope becomes trope, but make no mistake: there is an enduring need to move outside the proverbial cave and into exploring new approaches and forms.
Origins of the Term
The first usage of the term trope finds its origin in Greece, though it was not first noted as anything literary in nature. Rather, at its inception, the term tropos was usually coined as a “turn, direction, or way,” though there is the occasional nod to defining it as an “alteration” or “change.” In its youth, a trope was a pillar of classical rhetorical strategy, described sometimes as a twist or turn utilized by orators across the political spectrum.
Strangely, this definition remained largely untouched for hundreds of years, somehow surviving the medieval period and its subsequent explosion of philosophy that was the Renaissance and the Enlightenment without significantly changing. (I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention that the 1530s did see trope first use as “a figure of speech.”)
It was not until more modern theorists such as Kenneth Burke and Michel Foucault that the term really saw a true redefinition. Regrettably, it is a new meaning that is far less savory than its rhetorical origins. Now it has become almost a dirty word in literature and modern media. Now a trope is a rehash of tired repetition, a detestable cliche, something seen over and over again to the point of endless redundancy.
(And yes, I’m aware of the irony in that last statement.)
The idea of trope rose out of the desire to classify effective arguments, to understand the finest way to bridge the gap between creator and consumer. The idea of cliche rose out of the desire to spoon feed where the consumer should be expected to digest for themselves.
The Imitation Game
Modern tropes are obvious, boring, exhausting. The good guys wear white, the bad guys black. The reluctant hero who never wants to get involved until a house is burnt down/a family member is hurt/a beloved animal is kidnapped. The con man with a heart of gold.
Many visual creators will tell you that there are reasons they turn to these cliche tropes. Very often a great deal of information needs to be communicated quickly and wordlessly to an audience, and easy symbols allow consumers to digest without losing pace of flow. Without the benefit of Disney levels of money to back your comic book franchise movies (cough cough Marvel), some corners need to be cut because of time constraints.
Writers on Roads Less Traveled By
But literary creators need not use such obvious roads. In an art form that does not have hard limits, there is no need to lean on easily digestible imagery or shortcuts to tell a good story.
So many successful authors, both modern and further into history, try to do this. Each of these are verbose monsters, cranking out pieces of fiction that span thousands of pages: the easiest that comes to mind is the late Robert Jordan, whose books routinely leap over 700 pages a piece. Others, such as George RR Martin or Anne McCaffrey, are equally expansive in their writing. One need look no further than raw numbers of copies sold per book though McCaffrey does this in sheer numbers of books as opposed to the length of a single work (as GRRM prefers).
And audiences love them for it: GRRM continues to be hounded for updates on his sixth novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and not just by fantasy die-hards. Is this because of his Santa Claus-like appearance or ability to un-ironically wear a sailor’s cap?
No, this manner of fandom is pervasive and all-encompassing due to the nature of the writing which avoids the trope or, in some cases, outright spits in its face. (For example, blithely slicing off the head of heroic, honorable Eddard Stark while more grotesque characters thrive.)
The Error in Seeing Writing as a Recipe to be Followed
In recent memory, I stumbled across a Medium piece written comparing the art of writing to that of cooking. On its face, I understand the approach of seeing writing as taking two cups of characterization and mixing it with a few ounces of theme (so long as you add dashes of humor to taste). It demystifies the matter, repackaging something that is daunting and terrifying and recasting it as an approachable nibble.
A lot of writers follow this very format. In a thought process that looks more akin to assembling IKEA furniture than creating a moving narrative, I have read more than my fair share of material that plods through a world that could be wondrous if only its creator had not been so slavishly devoted to a process espoused by some unmet internet mentor.
And that’s what is so dangerous about the state of fiction today. Approaching the idea mechanically destroys the very purpose of writing. The most interesting tales are those that require the reader to think, to engage with the consuming mind instead of allowing it to fall asleep at the wheel of reading. We admire and abhor characters like Orson Scott Card’s Ender, GRRM’s Tyrion, and even the relationship between Madeline Miller’s Circe and Penelope.
The idea of trope rose out of the desire to classify effective arguments, to understand the finest way to bridge the gap between creator and consumer. The idea of cliche rose out of the desire to spoon feed where the consumer should be left to digest for themselves.
For those of you looking to cook up your own narrative, reject the idea that writing is a step by step process that always ends in a tasty meal. Sure, you could follow the recipe and create something that is passable. But it is when we go “off-book” that we create our most memorable stories and, in so doing, affect our readers the most deeply.