Originally published at fritz freiheit.com blog. You can comment here or there.
Tropes – Part 1 – Shedding Some Light On Tropes (wiki version)
Last week, at the Tuesday night’s AAAWG meeting, the topic of tropes came up. When I was asked what a trope was, I am chagrined to say that I didn’t have an immediate cogent answer and referred the questioner to tvtropes.org. While I was (and am) comfortable with my internal conceptualization of tropes — which is another way of saying that I could (and can) identify a trope when confronted with one — as well as being familiar with the dictionary definition, I didn’t have a definition that I could whip out and say a trope is X. Subsequently, another member of the writing group asked me how I defined trope, and I must thank Patrick McHugh for asking this question, challenging my response, and for participating in the lively discussion that ensued, all of which provided me the framework for clarifying my thoughts and conceptualizations about what a trope is. And rather than drawing things out, I will make the assertion that:
- Tropes are the idioms of storytelling.
“Fine,” you say. “Back that up.”
Let’s compare the definitions of “trope” with those of “idiom”.
- A figure of speech using words in non-literal ways.
- For example, a metaphor.
- (we’ll ignore the music related definition)
And one of the definitions of idiom (we’ll come back to the other definitions later):
- A speech form or an expression of a given language that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.
- For example, “keep tabs on.”
We can compare the two definitions as follows, starting with idiom = trope:
- figure of speech = speech form or expression
- non-literal way = cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements
There is a strong congruence of meaning between these two definitions. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two. Why do we have different terms at all? The distinction lies in domain. Idioms apply to languages and dialects, while tropes apply to stories, or in a wider sense, to “art”.
Another important distinction is that the meaning of an idiom is fixed in a given language or dialect at any given time. The meaning of a trope is allowed to vary from context to context. Or, as I will argue, from genre to genre. I’ll come back to this later. First, I want to expand the notion of trope to encompass more than language and line it up with common usage:
- trope (definition part 2)
- A common or overused theme or device.
- A cliche.
- For example, “The usual horror movie tropes.”
When we talk about tropes we don’t limit ourselves to the written or spoken word, we also apply them to visual media, such as painting or photography, and mixed media, such as television and film. Like storytelling, we typically do this in the context of genre.
- A trite or overused expression or idea.
- A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial.
Leading to a refined definition:
- trope (refined)
- The interpretation or meaning of a pattern or signifier that is not inherently contained in the pattern or signifier.
This is significantly more complicated to express, although not more complicated in practice. I’ve replaced the phrase “figure of speech” with “pattern or signifier” in order to go beyond the constraints of a spoken or written language and talk about “recognizable things” instead. For example, we can talk about visual tropes, such as the “idea light bulb“, or the “fire breathing diner” in cartoons, advertising, and movies. We can also talk about ideas as tropes, like genre conventions or cliches, such as “mystery stories are about finding out who committed the crime” or “horror stories are about which character will be left alive at the end”.
Tropes, like idioms are used to communicate ideas from one person (the author) to another (the reader). As both readers, but more importantly, as writers, we must be aware that language and tropes are dependent on context for meaning. In the case of language, it is the culture and the individual’s experience that form the basis for meaning. Tropes go one step further, adding genre to the mix, which will be the topic of Tropes – Part 2 – Red Herrings and Eye Candy.
To conclude Tropes Part 1, let’s look at how a simple car-related trope occurs in a story and how readers might interpret it.
- “the car was driving down the wrong side of the road”
- Interpretation 1
- “the car was driving down the left-hand side of the road”
- Interpretation 2
- “the car was driving down the right-hand side of the road”
There is nothing in the original statement that tells you what the actual side of the road the car is driving on. If the reader of the statement is an American, then you get interpretation 1. If the reader of the statement is English, then you get interpretation 2. Neither interpretation is wrong (without further context), they are just completely opposite to each other. This may not matter, the story may proceed without a hitch without having to resolve which side the car is actually driving on. On the other hand, it might be critical and the author will have to disambiguate somehow.