Unraveling the Uselessness of the Trope

Many writers waste their time codifying what essentially boils down to opinion.

A malaise threatens the landscape of screenwriting. A dark pretentious cloud of misunderstanding and misdirection, this fiend fogs the minds of would-be Authors and reduces the beauty of subtle complication to clickable buzz words. It's name? The Trope.

Bandied about from coffee house to story room, the trope carries as much significance to the structure of story as the MacGuffin; that is to say, it's completely worthless.1 Like it's Hitchcockian cousin, this notion of story breeds a level of confidence in comprehension that when fully examined, simply doesn't add up. Frustration sets in the moment one hears the trope thrown about with so much familiarity from accomplished screenwriters. Why waste bandwidth on an ineffectual understanding?

Definition not Really

From the TvTropes "wiki" page:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.

In other words, clichés.

Tropes are not cliches...The word cliched means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting...We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

Yet, in creating this massive glossary of familiar cultural shortcuts TvTropes has done just that--made storytelling dull and uninteresting. They have made the act of writing a story something stock and commonplace. Something banal and imitative.

Worse, the meme of tropes gives birth to atrocious infographics like this Periodic Table of Storytelling:

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

Why atrocious?

Presented in this fashion one gets the sense that tropes are crucial towards the formation of a story. If the original Periodic Table of Elments illuminated the chemical makeup of gasses and solids in our Universe, then surely this Table of Storytelling Elements must shed the same light on narrative. Yet this chart says nothing of the true chemical composition of story. It says nothing of how to craft an argument with a mix of character, plot, theme and genre. It doesn't share insight on how to deliver something meaningful about the human condition. It says nothing signficant.

Instead, it tells us that an Act is more popular than 3 Acts and that Chekhov's Gun beats out Backstory when it comes to subjective interpretations of storytelling devices found in cinema and in television. Sounds more tripe than trope. The popularity of one cultural shorthand in reference to the other fails to offer Authors better insight towards getting what is in their heart out and onto the page. By pretending to grant wisdom, the trope deceives the writer.2

The Young and the Lesbian

Consider the character trope Young and in Charge:

the leader is a person younger than all the rest, maybe even a kid. This usually shows that the young leader is smarter than his or her adult lackies, or that some manner of higher authority (usually their powerful parents) has placed them in charge. In any case, this usually makes for an interesting character dynamic.

Ok. So now that I know that having a kid in charge is "interesting", how does that help me write my story? Better yet, what sort of thematic statement does this trope portend? The answer to both questions is, it doesn't.

Writers will jump to their feet and, pointing index fingers high in exultation, exclaim "Johnny's that trope of Young and in Charge!" Fellow writers nearby, having paid their dues online memorizing these concepts, will nod in agreement and elbow each other with a shared confidence usually reserved for FreeMasons. But what really has been accomplished here? Johnny is young. And in charge. But is this some destiny he has wanted to avoid all his life? Perhaps his position, a lie built on the false memories of aging elders, engenders feelings of hatred and plots of revenge amongst his peers. We've said nothing of the true dramatic potential at the center of his position, yet somehow we come away with this feeling that we understand something profound about our character--something that ties him into a long history of similar characters before him. In reality, we verge on the precipice of cliché.

Many turn to tropes in an attempt to better understand story:

Regarding Schoolgirl Lesbians. Does that trope apply if the characters are schoolgirl aged but the setting doesn't involve school?

Does it really matter? Regardless of whether the trope applies or not, in the end it will have absolutely zero effect on what it is you're trying to say with your work. What do you want to say about Schoolgirl Lesbians? Do relationships like that require special attention to thrive and grow? Does the idea that they belong together no matter what threaten to destroy them both (as in Heavenly Creatures)? These are questions writers should be asking, questions that leads to a better understanding of the purpose behind the words on the page, questions that call upon structural elements to support that conclusion. Not questions about schoolgirl lesbians that can only lead to answers like this:

Difficult to say. It sounds to me like there's a huge amount of overlap with Romantic Two-Girl Friendship, but that page specifically says that if the relationship is "explicit" then it falls under "Schoolgirl Lesbians". Based on that, I would assume that it applies to two girls who are of schoolgirl age regardless of being in school, but only if they are definitely seen to be in a relationship.

Nonsense. Nonsense that wastes time categorizing storytelling shorthand, not story.

Ingredients Over Presentation

In truth, the trope speaks of superficiliaty, not superstructure. The Dramatica theory of story makes a clear distinction between the actual story, or storyforming, process of writing a narrative and the way in which those structural elements unfold on screen or on the page. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story may share the same storyform, yet they differ in their storytelling. Turning to examples of storytelling when in the development of a narrative leads to emulation, not understanding. It may not be dull and uninteresting, but the natural progression of a trope leans towards cultural cliché. The subject of a narrative takes precedence over the substance.

The Cancer of Cynicism

Tropes. A misunderstanding masquerading as insight--insight that spawns destructive memes like "Everything is a Remix". This idea that it has all been done before flatters the shallow crowd with false wisdom and an untested assurance that they know. This idea that we repeat and remix strikes the soul of a potential artist with cataclysmic cynicism. Why bother creating if it entails replicating the past? Depression ensues.

This same thinking wafts up from the mob of Hero's Journey advocates or Save the Cat! aficionados. "Luke Skywalker and Neo are the same character, man. They're both Dudes with a Problem." Luke and Neo couldn't be more different if they tried, and yet there are those who still can't see otherwise.3 Luke needed to trust in something that had yet to be proven while Neo needed to believe he was the one. Trust and faith are not the same, but you won't find that discussed amongst the online halls of tropedom. Instead, you find arguments over the differences between the Evil Overlord, President Evil and Mayor Pain.

Depression ensues.

Spreading Lies

With assumptions and subjective interpretation acting as veins for the TvTropes site, one can hardly be surprised at its entry for Dramatica. Neo a Be-er? Bruce Wayne/Batman in The Dark Knight a Steadfast Main Character? Pretty sure "becoming the villain that Gotham needs" describes a Resolve of Change more strongly than anything I've seen in years, but perhaps I should consult the Schoolgirl Lesbian.

Reading the entry for Dramatica, one can almost breathe in the cynical air of a troper. Witnessing the false accusations and blatantly incorrect presumptions presented on that page allows one to discount the entirety of the trope. In thinking they know, they reveal their lack of depth.

The End of the Trope

We are also not a wiki for bashing things. Once again, we're about celebrating fiction, not showing off how snide and sarcastic we can be.

Well now I feel bad...but only for a moment.

Like the ridiculous and useless MacGuffin (a favorite of bullshit-artist screenwriters everywhere), tropes must die if the human race ever wishes to progress in its understanding of story.

Tropes disrupt creativity, injecting themselves in the writing process somewhere between spark and action. Does the tried and true engender confidence or does it somehow limit the potential of the writer by saying, "You're just another in a long line."? Faced with the possibility of simply recycling or re-hashing "tropes" (which sounds remarkably like trudging) writers begin to develop an all-knowing superiority of knowledge that stifles any real educational development.

In their confidence the tropers express ignorance. So sure of their tried and true truisms of story they fail to fully comprehend the elegant complexity of Dramatica. Certainly the Schoolgirl Lesbian and the Large Ham tax the mind at a lower rate than a Story Prerequisite of Learning or a Relationship Story Catalyst of Expediency, but at what cost to the evolution of our understanding of narrative?4

Forgo the False God of the trope and move towards a deeper appreciation of why stories capture our attention. Make the investment to learn Dramatica.


  1. As mentioned in an article elsewhere, The MacGuffin is a Joke. Stop thinking it's an essential part of narrative.
  2. Again, you can safely ignore anyone or anything that pays reverence to the MacGuffin.
  3. For more on the difference between Neo and Luke Skywalker, see the article The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker.
  4. Story Prerequisites describe the preliminary steps that must be met prior to completing the Story Requirement (itself, a precursor to the Story Goal). The Relationship Story Catalyst increases the tension between the two principal characters of a story. A little more valuable than Sealed Evil in a Can.
Originally published 05-01-2014

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