Give ‘Em Enough Trope and They’ll Hang Themselves

So many things didn’t exist when I was a kid. Gluten didn’t exist, just Cap’n Crunch. The only safeword anybody knew was “not tonight, honey.” And there was no such thing as a trope, except hidden away in glass-doored cabinets in a handful of rhetoric departments. But now that we’ve all been to college, everybody and their sister-in-law talks about tropes.

And, as is true of the word irony, they’re almost all using it wrong.

My understanding of the rhetorical idea of tropes is that they’re basically the tools in the writer’s tool box, the literary techniques commonly applied to heighten one’s awareness of the possibilities of a scene or idea. Any time we use words to mean something other than their literal meaning, we’re employing a trope (as I have here, with “employing,” which is a metaphor; or “so many things didn’t exist when I was a kid,” which is an irony). Common tropes include allegory, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, some others less familiar.

A trope is not a series of standard plot devices or genre cliches, which is most often how I read the word in popular media. “Damsel in distress” is not a trope, nor is “It’s coming from inside the house!”, nor is “odd-couple work partners.” In fact, we might say that cliche (or the body of cliches that make up the heart of most genres) do the opposite work of tropes. Tropes heighten our attention, twist our understanding; cliches soothe our attention, ease us out of alertness and into comfort.

And comfort makes money. Three examples from today.

First. A new novel has been sold, to be published next year. Its pitch? “Derry Girls meets Come From Away.” Lazy lazy lazy. But Derry Girls made money, and Come From Away made money, and so if we Frankenstein those together, it’ll make even more money, right? (The novel in question, New Girl in Little Cove, may be wonderful; we won’t know for another year until it comes out. But the work of acquiring it and selling it was lazy.)

Second. In today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed, Robert Kelchen has a discussion of the unlikelihood of fall on-campus college. He notes that colleges have three reasons to declare unwarranted optimism: 1) to keep their new freshmen, 2) to suck up to state politicians who are COVID skeptics, and 3) the hope for a summer miracle: an instant saliva test or a vaccine. But he believes that although the responsible schools—the Cal State system, for instance—have already waved off in-person instruction for this fall, the others will wait for Yale and Stanford and Duke to make their decisions. Kelchen writes that “announcements by elite colleges will provide others with the political cover they need to make the necessary choice. Within one or two weeks, most of them will probably have followed suit.”

And Third. In today’s New York Times, a remarkable article about the charges of literary theft among thieves. Specifically, about two writers who’ve fan-fictioned their way into competing novels of Omegaverse erotica. They’ve both taken a fictional universe in its entirety, the rules about how physiology and sociology and politics work, and written shabby secondhand porn about it. (Internet rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it.) And now these two “authors” are at each other’s throats, the first claiming that the second has stolen HER work, the second claiming that the first has defamed her by calling her a plagiarist. It’s like competing gangs fighting over the suitcase of money that a third party has already stolen from a bank; none of you should have any claim to any of it. One of the authors, seeing herself as aggrieved, says this:

“I couldn’t see how a story I had written using recognized tropes from a shared universe, to tell a story that was quite different than anything else out there commercially, could be targeted in that way,” Ms. Ellis said. “There are moments and scenarios that seem almost identical, but it’s a trope that can be found in hundreds of stories.”

No. No, no, no. You’re using recognized cliches, cliches “that can be found in hundreds of stories.” You’re letting other people do honest, original work, and then stealing the success of that work to make your own work seem more important or more legitimate.

The NYT article speaks of the queen of all trope-theft, E.L. James, with a lovely phrase I hadn’t heard before. Just as a reminder (and I know you’ve almost blessedly forgotten about Fifty Shades, but like a cliche zombie, it reappears just when you think you’re safe), Ms. James was writing fan-porn based on the Twilight books. That online giveaway writing—under the author name of Snowqueen’s Icedragon, if you can imagine—caught the attention of an editor, who said, “change all their names, change the location, and make them not vampires, and I can sell it.” That practice is common enough now that it has a name: “filing off the serial numbers.” We all know theft when we see it.

The most reliable path to wealth is to be second in line. Let someone else take on the hard work and risk of innovation, and then twist it five degrees and get rich. The website “Hot or Not” from 2000 was copied to become Facebook in 2003. The text-messaging practices of SMS became Twitter. Once word got out that Ford was developing the sporty compact Mustang, the Barracuda and Camaro were instantly in production (just as, a decade earlier, the 1948 Porsche 356 spawned the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette spawned the 1955 Ford Thunderbird).

In an oversaturated media world, it’s hard to take a chance on something new. It’s hard to even find it. Spin-offs and franchises are the way to go. Just take your “Real Housewives” series to a new city; you’ll be fine.