Monday, July 21, 2014

Tropes, memes, yawns

Recently, blogger and writer Charlie Jane Anders put out a call on twitter for suggestions of screenwriting moves that are overused, which resulted in two blog posts: "20 Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes We Never Need To See Again" and "Even More Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes That Need A Nice Long Rest."

And if you read--or let's be honest, skim--these lists, you might find yourself nodding along. Yes, there are lots of scenes where someone talks smack about someone and then realizes that that someone is right behind him. (If you want evidence of any trope, check TV Tropes or look for a supercut on YouTube (though sometimes the examples aren't exactly what we'd want them to be).)

Though you may also find yourself feeling somewhat equivocal about some of these tropes. After all the "villain who wants to get caught" isn't really all that common as a movie trope--it just happens to have appeared in some big budget, popular, nerd-friendly, and recent films (Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight, Star Trek into Darkness). We're not really working with a deep trope here and need to be careful of our impressions being biased.

But whether these things are tropes with many examples ("You're off the case" yells the hard-nosed administrator to the maverick cop, who will solve the case and possibly either earn the respect of the administrator or punch him in the face) or with only a few; or problems that go deep into culture beyond films and tv (the white person as savior of some darker natives--or who is even better at being a native than they are)--I think any list like this calls up a few serious questions about each trope:

  • Why is this used at all?
    • For instance, the "villain wanted to get caught" is both a way to show how smart/mastermindy the villain is and is also a scene of sudden reversal (the prisoner is now in power) and lets the hero and villain have a dramatic scene;
    • "You have to see this" (parodied here) is common in tv and movies--just like people popping over to talk rather than calling--because it's a visual medium and watching two people talk is less interesting than seeing them interact in person (is the common wisdom);
  • Is this really a problem?
    • "I just threw up in my mouth a little bit" was fun and slightly edgy and gross the first time it came up; the 100th time, not so much;
    • "We only use 10 percent of our brains" isn't really a trope, per se, but it's a bit of misunderstood and wrong science that really is just used as an excuse for someone to develop mental powers;
  • Is there a way to save this?
    • On the second list, someone offered "when a villain tells the hero that they're the same" as an overused trope--and that particular scene may be over-repeated, but the idea that the hero has to struggle with some similarity with the villain is less a "trope" and more a form of ur-story that we often tell. Just because that scene needs to get reworked doesn't mean the underlying structure needs to get thrown out. So how do we save these story beat? The easiest way would be to change up the trope: maybe it's not the villain who points out the similarity, but someone else. Maybe the villain rejects this similarity. There are dozens of really easy tweaks to breathe a little bit of air into this trope.
    • Or take the villain wanted to get caught: once we know why we're tempted to use it (to show villain's smarts and provide a reversal and give a dramatic confrontation), you can think about how to get those effects through other means: for instance, the villain could (gasp!) escape through a well-thought out escape plan after some drama; and maybe luring the hero out to catch the villain helps the villain to do something else nefarious elsewhere.
As much as I enjoy this sort of list (and this sort of crowd-sourcing), I'd love to see a sort of story clinic for these tropes to dig down into why these tropes were used, why overused, and how to find something new in there.

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