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Done To Death: A New Trope

As a wise person said, there’s nothing new under the sun. Similarly, it’s difficult to find a truly unique and original idea. The key, it would seem, is to find a new way to present that trope.
| Mar 14, 2012 | No comments |

Two weeks ago, I brought up tropes and overused ideas, things that we’ve seen far too often in Christian speculative fiction. And a lot of you had ideas for things that had been “done to death” in your opinions. I brought up the Nephilim. Others of you brought up being transported to new realms through a portal, hidden royal children, and other plot points and devices that people keep coming back to.

One of the comments that stood out to me the most, though, was what Rebecca LuElla Miller had to say about tropes:

As to overdone tropes — none. I don’t think there are any. All of them can work if they’re done well. By that I mean they feel fresh, have an original spin. As you said, John, it’s ALL been done before, so we aren’t going to come up with that new trope that no one’s thought of before. And if we tackle one that hasn’t been done for a while, it doesn’t guarantee it will seem new.

I think that’s a fair point and one worth considering. As a wise person once observed, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same is true for tropes. It’s very difficult to find a truly unique and original idea that hasn’t been done in some way before. The key, it would seem, is to find a new way to present that trope.

What’s funny is that shortly after I posted my article on tropes two weeks ago, I found myself coming face to face with a “been there, done that” trope, one that one of you mentioned in the comments. I won’t say which trope it is, but I will say where I found it. I found it in the ABA YA book Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

If you’re unfamiliar with this book, it’s basically a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale set in the distant future. World War IV has been fought, uniting the world under a Commonwealth. Living in what was once China is a girl named Cinder. Cinder is a cyborg mechanic (as in, she’s a cyborg who is also a mechanic, not a mechanic who works on cyborgs). One day, she meets Prince Kai, the crown prince for the Commonwealth. Kai has a stressful life, believe it or not. There is a plague that is ravaging the population (including his father, the Emperor). Worse, the inhabitants of the moon are acting up, their queen making loud overtures about marrying Kai to “unite” their people.

It is very much the Cinderella story retold with cyborgs, a killer plague, and “moon magic” (don’t laugh, it works really well). I thoroughly enjoyed this story.

Except for the part where I hit a trope. As a matter of fact, it was a fairly obvious trope, one that one of you mentioned in the comments two weeks ago. I won’t say which one. Spoilers and what-not. But I had most of the plot figured out after that point.

The thing is, I really didn’t care.

The reason why is because Meyer’s story and characters were so engaging that even though part of the plot had a “been there, done that” vibe to it, I still had a lot of fun reading it. Actually, I devoured this book, polishing it off in just two or three days, and I’m ready for the sequel, whenever that may come out.

This taught me a valuable lesson about tropes. Do we have to avoid them? Well, we really can’t. Nothing new under the sun, right? The key is to find ways to use them in a fresh and new way if at all possible. Or, barring that, compensate for the trope by making the rest of the story shine. Then, while your readers may get frustrated with that one small trope, they’ll be willing to forgive because the rest is so very good.

But I’m not done with this topic just yet. In two weeks, I’m going to bring up another trope that we often see, a flaw that I think infects far too much of Christian fiction in general, not just speculative fiction. Until then, dear readers, let me leave you with a question: in what books or movies have you seen a trope used in a unique and surprising way?

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Bethany A. Jennings
Member

Well, it’s not speculative fiction, but recently I was pleasantly surprised by the character dynamics in the show “White Collar”.  Basically, the show is about a felon (formerly an art thief) who is now teamed up with an FBI agent to help catch other white-collar criminals.  So you have that common team-up of “bad boy” and “good boy” trying to work together.  When we started watching the show, I entirely expected them to portray the felon as the dashing, clever brains of the operation, and the FBI agent as kind of a clueless chump who takes credit for everything anyway.  Not at all!  In fact, the two preform as an excellent team.  BOTH are very clever, and sometimes the FBI agent is just as wily as the felon.  Not only that, but he is also the moral backbone of the team, often influencing the felon to do the right thing instead of sliding back into his old ways.  I was delighted to see the “government man” depicted not only as a really good guy, but also clever and sharp rather than bumbling.  It’s a good show – for that and many other reasons!

Kaci Hill
Member

I’m a new fan of White Collar and caught up to Season Three in time to watch the second half of it “in real time.”  So many good elements there.

Krysti
Guest

That sounds like a good show, Bethany! Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of The Invisible Man (the one in color from more recently). I think it’s got pretty much the same trope as what you’ve mentioned, but again, because the “bad boy” invisible man is counter-balanced by a scarily bright and good “keeper,” and by his partner, who can be a comic character that talks a little dopey, but always seems to know exactly where he is and what he’s doing, the show really works! I guess I could include his boss here too; a wilier, sneakier, more manipulative personality quite likely doesn’t exist, but he’s also surprisingly straightforward at times, and appears to have (in spite of the wily sneaky side) a highly developed ethical sense of right and wrong, and loyalty to his agents.

So far, it’s been cringe-free entertainment, because there is that clearly defined sense of right and wrong in the context of the show, and even though the invisible man gets away with many things he shouldn’t, he is also showing growth as a character and that he has and is developing a conscience.

I’m not really getting to read too many books these days, which I regret, but there is the series of allegorical fairy-tales by C.S. Lakin that I have been reading as they come out, that also contain a great many ideas already seen elsewhere. However, they are presented in such new and fresh ways that I’m amazed each time I read a new one at how unusually good and satisfying the book is. 

Kaci Hill
Member

To actually comment on the post…
 

It is very much the Cinderella story retold with cyborgs, a killer plague, and “moon magic” (don’t laugh, it works really well). I thoroughly enjoyed this story.
Except for the part where I hit a trope. As a matter of fact, it was a fairly obvious trope, one that one of you mentioned in the comments two weeks ago. I won’t say which one. Spoilers and what-not. But I had most of the plot figured out after that point.
The thing is, I really didn’t care.

 
I think you’re right; that’s really the key. (And, to be perfectly fair, it’s what makes a good chickflick or action movie, too – the art is in the telling; we already know the ending. We just don’t know how we’re getting there.)  A lot hinges, though, on that pivotal moment – the telling.
 
Another good example is The Wilderking Trilogy, which to me is sort of like Mark Twain meets Narnia.  Different world, but closely alludes to shepherd-boy David. 
 
And I might really have to read Cinder….
 
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

Oh wow, cinder sounds really good! I love fairy tale retellings anyway. Robin McKinley has loads of them, like her excellent version of Beauty and the Beast, or her (sometimes surreal) version of Sleeping Beauty called Spindle’s End.
 
I was lamenting my  use of tropes to my husband. He pointed out that tropes aren’t bad. Cliches are bad. Tropes are just elements that everybody uses because they happen to be awesome. (Just hit up tvtropes.com. The characters in my current story are Forgot He Was a Robot, Raised by Grandparents, Heaven Seeker, and Hormone-Addled Teenager. I’ll bet you know exactly who they are now, don’t you?)

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

*gasp*  You have me sucked into this site, Kessie.  I’d never heard of it before.  😀  This is so fun! 

Galadriel
Guest

Love that site!

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

Hahaha.  This is too fun.  Within my “Save Both Worlds” story, I have an Ideal Hero…or two…or three…an Emotionally Repressed Girl (sort of.  She’s not that simple at all – but that’s a good thing!), a Disappeared Dad, a Cute Clumsy Girl, and another female character I seriously can’t place.  She’s sort of an I Must Protect Her figure, but also a pivotal character in her own right, becoming a skilled spy by the end of the trilogy, but definitely NOT a tough girl by any means.  Hmm.  Oh well.  It’s good that not all my characters fit the tropes.  🙂

Galadriel
Guest

One of my current fanfics is a very long “Clones are People Too” with a bit of “Defusing the Tykebomb” thrown in, due to the original’s nature. But I’d have a hard time pinning down my original story, apart from a case of Mentor Occupation Hazard and Self-Made Orphan with a twist.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Oh boy, great descriptions of your characters! Aren’t you glad they’re more complex than the simple tropes?
 
Also, TV Tropes will eat your life. Just warning you. 😀

Fred Warren
Member

I have lost many an hour to that site. Click one link, and the next beckons…

Cheziannhe
Guest
Cheziannhe

I agree that this sounds really nice show for all of us! I have to check this out…I like watching or just reading stories like fairytales…Thank you for this!

TheQuietPen
Guest

The Cinderella book sounds excellent.  I’m a huge fan of re-tellings.  

Thanks for this post.  I tend to be really hard on myself to try and be as edgy, unique, and original as possible.  With a fairy tale retelling, I worked so hard on this that when some people read it, they liked it, but at the same time, they found it very difficult to relate to.  In order to make things “fresh” I had to stretch the realm of possibility and believe-ability way beyond my audience’s ability to go there.  I found that backing down and trying to just quirk a trope once or twice, instead of spinning it around into a confusing whirlwind, made a much more readable, believable story.