How To Take The Guesswork Out Of Exploiting Genre Tropes


How to avoid generic tropes? It’s much easier than you might think.

How Do I Avoid Tropes In My Writing?

Shakespeare is the master of exploiting tropes. He is very, very good at this. Every Shakespeare play has the beautiful young woman, the clown, the young hero, the old fool, and so on. Let us turn our attention today to the exquisite trope-twisting in Much Ado About Nothing.

But How Do I Avoid Tropes In My Own Fiction?

I promise, this will be super useful. But, in the meantime, here is a quick summation: To avoid tropes, embrace them and add touches of mundanity and pettiness. Mundane details and petty reality will elevate any trope to an instant and original piece of genius. Now, on to Shakespeare.

John the Bastard: Worst Villain Ever, Or Exploded Trope?

This scene is from Act I of the comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. I’m going to give you a brief run-down to save time. The young heroes have just arrived at Leonato’s estate, and are going to stay and party for some time (they’ve just returned from a successful war). Now, here is the setup:

Don Pedro is the ruling prince; he has a bastard brother, John from whom he has been estranged for many years. During the war, John and Pedro reconciled, and Pedro made a great show of being bosom-buddies with his half-brother. In the opening scene of the play, Pedro and John enter together, stand together, and John is polite and gracious to everyone.

Da Da Dum!

Now, Pedro is also long-time friends with a landed gentleman, Benedick, and they both have just acquired a new best-buddy in Claudio, who distinguished himself in the war. So the structure here goes 1) Pedro is in charge of everyone 2) John is Pedro’s brother, and they made an alliance during the war 3) Benedick has been Pedro’s good friend basically forever, and 4) Claudio is the shiny new friend that both Pedro and Benedick are going gaga over.

There. All clear? Now, these men have come and greeted Leonato, and everyone else has gone ahead into the house. Claudio pulled Benedick back to tell him that *gasp* he, Claudio, is finding himself deeply in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero. Benedick ribs Claudio mercilessly, and after a few moments, Pedro, BRINGING JOHN WITH HIM, comes back out to the courtyard to see what the holdup is.

Here’s Where The Trope Comes Into Play

I have never, ever seen anyone stage or film this scene correctly. For proof, here is the stage direction when Don Pedro enters. (This is from the First Folio, which is the only authentic Shakespeare text extant.)

BENEDICK. looke, don Pedro is returned to seeke you.
Enter don Pedro, Iohn the bastard.

It is utterly incontrovertible that John enters with Pedro. John comes on stage. Now, here is where it gets reeeeeeeaaally interesting.

One of the most famous scenes from this play unfolds, as Benedick vows to remain a bachelor all his days. Claudio and Pedro tease him mercilessly, and John stands by, saying nothing, for about fifteen minutes. Finally, Benedick has had enough, and leaves the courtyard. Here is the stage direction:

BENEDICK. and so I leaue you.  Exit.

Here is what you need to know about Shakespearean stage direction: Exit always refers to one person leaving. (I get excited about this sort of thing, as you can see.) Exeunt always refers to at least two or more people leaving the stage.

Now we are left with Pedro, Claudio, and John on stage together. Claudio and Pedro start conferring privately, and lay plans to woo and win Hero. Throughout the scene, they deliberately exclude John. Finally, the two leave together, and John trails away after them. Here is the stage direction:

PEDRO. In practise let vs put it presently. Exeunt.

The next time we see John the bastard, he is in an inexplicably foul mood, and hatches a plot to destroy Claudio’s marriage to Hero. “I don’t care what the plan is,” he tells his goons, “so long as these losers suffer miserably.”

How Was That Exploiting A Trope?

Shakespeare takes an established trope, what we might call a tired device, that of the neglected, illegitimate brother, and combines it with another over-used trope, that of the inexplicably-cranky villain who stomps on love wherever he finds it. With these two types combined in John the Bastard, Shakespeare turns the tired trope on its head, and creates a completely fresh scenario: he shows us, on stage, Pedro being a back-stabbing, shallow numbskull, who has only been kind to John for show and when it was convenient. As soon as the war is over, and the public eye has moved on—in fact, the very instant that no one is watching—Pedro treats his brother, literally, like he doesn’t even exist.

You Will Never Find Anyone Who Knows This

This is a complete aside, but Western culture has a deep and long-held investment in believing that Shakespeare is a good poet, but a terrible dramatist. I could go on for a while about that—but back to tired tropes, and exploiting them!

Wait, Victor! That Sounded So Interesting!

Email me, and I’ll answer your questions in another blog post. Today, we will finish exploiting tropes!

Sigh. Fine.

What Shakespeare teaches us in this example is that the key to successfully exploiting a trope is to expose the reason why.

Why is John being so vindictive, so vile, and so utterly remorseless in his attempts to destroy the happiness of Pedro, Claudio, and Hero? Why does he feel such a rooted hatred for his brother and Claudio? Shakespeare shows us, in a brief scene that is so brilliant, and so effective, that John never even needs to speak a line, or be spoken to. I mean, what an incisive example of that over-worn adage, “show, don’t tell.”

Now, How To Use It Ourselves

Let us examine this ingenious ploy using a trope of our own. We shall take for our example the overused trope of the sex-saturated, arrogant space jockey (see Han Solo, Peter Quill, and that new guy (the sensitive version of this trope) in that Rebel One movie they made. Oh, and Captain James T. Kirk, both iterations).

Before we jump into today’s example, let us look a little more closely at what Shakespeare has done with the quintessential villain, John (the Bastard). Shakespeare has not only shown us the “why”; he has also grounded that “why” in a scenario that is so common, so familiar, and so petty, that it is instantly recognizable to any human observing it.

What man or woman has not been excluded by persons they thought were friends? What adult or child has not been rejected and crushed by the thoughtlessness and unsteadiness, or outright betrayal, of close allies? All have been used so.

Here Is Our Formula

Trope + Real-Time Motivation (the “why”) + Relatable Pettiness = Ingenious, Fresh Fiction

Let us now apply this formula for adept trope-exploitation to Kip, our 6’2, ginger-haired space pilot who has had too many girlfriends and too few nourishing greens.

First, I will write a horrible, heavy chunk of prose that will be grandiose, painfully generic, and just plain awful. Then I will write the same scenario with a real-time (current) motivation and with petty grounding, and you will be able to observe the difference between the two, and judge for yourself the usefulness of our Shakespearean-sourced trope-exploitation formula.

Bad Writing (Plain Trope):

Kip swung himself down the ladder of his filthy ship, and slipped in a pool of grease that was dripping with increasing violence from his second-generation food transponder.

“Should clean that up,” he muttered, catching himself against the metal wall, and stepping around the puddle. He ducked into the cockpit, and checked his hair in the little reflector he had rigged up over the view screen.

A blip of green light flashed on the control, and he glanced down.

“Miranda,” he muttered, frowning. He ignored the beeping light, and settled himself into the worn seat from which he had flown to so many far-away places. “Where to today?” he asked himself, opening the electronic manifest, and scanning down the tiny destination column. “Bolarkim,” he muttered, and his nose curled. There weren’t many single women in the Bolarkim station, and the gangs were rough. He poked the manifest, and selected another destination, Harva. They had beaches there, even if the tourists were rude. The beeping light grew brighter.

“Message received,” the ship said in a soothing voice.

“I don’t want to hear it, Miranda,” Kip said under his breath, and he rocked the vessel from its berth with a jolt and flash of rumbling heat.

Good Writing (Exploited Trope):

Kip swung down the ladder of his filthy ship, and slipped on a lick of grease that had pooled under the broken food-transponder. Kip writhed to the side, barely catching himself against the wall before his pants touched against the puddle of clammy stuff.

“Ew,” he whispered, grunting as he pulled himself upright, and stretched his steps cautiously around the wet spot. He paused when he was past it, and looked around half-heartedly for a towel. I should buy some rags, he told himself, before turning guiltily away and climbing into his cockpit. The mirror his last girlfriend had fixed to the dash caught his eye, and he grimaced at himself, and pushed his hand through his hair.

“Not that bad,” he told himself, settling into the cracked plastic seat, and buckling himself in.

A green light flashed on the controls, and he looked down at the name that scrolled over the screen.

“Kip,” a woman’s voice said, “you still have my music. I want it back.”

“I gave you all your stuff, Miranda!” Kip said. He frowned at the green light, and pushed firmly at a button. The light flickered, but remained on.

“I hotwired your dash com,” Miranda said in a smug tone. “I knew you wouldn’t take my calls.”

“Miranda, we aren’t together anymore,” Kip said, staring at the view screen with numb dislike. “You can’t call me like this.”

“I want my music back,” Miranda said.

“I gave you all your stuff!” Kip shouted.

“No, you didn’t. I want my music.”

“But it’s mine!” he exclaimed, jabbing at the button to no avail. Unbuckling, he slithered out of the seat, and pushed his face under the dash.

“You bought it while I was with you, and it’s half mine,” Miranda said. “I want at least the four albums with Fizzy Collins.”

“No! They’re mine!” Kip yelled from under the dash. He ripped free a delicate yellow wire, and with a fizzling bloop, the call went dead. Muttering darkly, Kip crawled back into his seat and opened the digital manifest. Bolarkim is far away, and miserably cold, Kip thought, and, his heart beating violently under his ribs, he brought the ship into motion and rocked clumsily up into the sky.

As you can see, in-scene motivation and rooted pettiness can twist a used-up trope into a shining emblem of brilliant storytelling. Try this out yourself, and see what fantastic forms of original fiction result.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can buy my most excellent fiction here. Thursday is definitely the best day of the week to start reading Harder Than Rocks.