Trope Tuesday: Arc Words and Symmetry

A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  Any reader interested in why tropes can be reused so often will also benefit from their exploration.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).

This Week’s Literary Trope: Arc Words

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

A word or phrase that appears throughout an Arc as a Motif.

Arc Words can be a way to hint at the Aesop or one of the themes of a show, often in the form of a question the characters must find an answer to. Alternately, they can be used for Foreshadowing. Note, though, that they are not the same thing as a Running Gag, a Catch Phrase, or even just a phrase that ends up popping up a lot due to being used a lot in the plot.

The example that led me to this was from When Harry Met Sally.  I think of that movie as a New Year’s Eve film purely because of the ending scenes, so it was on my mind today.  At the start of the film, the arc words are spoken: “Men and women can never be friends.”  This is the challenge that the movie sets up for itself.  Is this statement true?  Will the film affirm or refute it?  By introducing these arc words in a comical situation, the words seem less like an obvious theme for the whole film and more like an aside made to introduce tension and build character.

Weaving key thematic phrases into your scenes and revisiting them later adds greater possibilities for thematic symmetry in your work, and increases the satisfaction your audiences experiences. [Read more...]

Literary Trope of the Week: Karma Houdini

A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).

The Literary Trope: Karma Houdini

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

[The villain] has done just about every conceivable thing that would make an audience boo, hiss and hate him with the burning fire of a thousand suns. So when the Karmic Hammer falls and the time for his comeuppance finally arrives, the audience is going to sit back and bask in the satisfaction that can only come from watching him get what he so richly deserves, up to and including a highly ironic and gruesomely appropriate death.

Only… that’s not what happens. He doesn’t get what he deserves. Instead, he gets away scot-free, thumbs his nose at the hero, dons his baby seal cape (made from baby harp seals he personally skinned alive), and walks off into the sunset.

This is a fruitful trope, but one that I think a lot of the TV Tropes examples gets wrong.  There’s a difference between a villain who lives to see another day and a villain who society ensures lives to see another day.

Take comic book villains.  Would the Joker work as a Karma Houdini?  Not to me.  Sure he has nine lives, and though he frequently ends up in Arkham, he never really gets what is coming to him.  But this is only as it is because of the nature of comic book stories: the villain must return.  The status quo is for the villain to be out there concocting his next scheme.  To constantly create and permanently punish villain after villain would not serve the episodic nature of such storytelling.

The Karma Houdini is different (or should be).  It’s a character who keeps contorting his or her way out of facing true retribution because they can–because they are permitted to.  Take the Malfoy family in Harry Potter.  They survive Voldemort’s first downfall with nary a scratch on their reputation/public standing.  While the second downfall may have gone worse for them, they escape with their lives and Draco is still respectable enough to be permitted to send his little Scorpius to Hogwarts (whoever says Draco gets better as a person need ask themselves how a reformed Slytherin could name his son Scorpius and be considered to have mended his ways).  The Malfoys don’t survive because of luck or bravery or anything like that; they survive because they are wealthy and privileged and suffering consequences is not what they do.   [Read more...]

Literary Trope of the Week: Punch Clock Villain

A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).

The Literary Trope: Punch Clock Villain

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

Like a mercenary, but with none of the badass.

These are characters who have no real grudge against the heroes, but are simply doing a job they’re getting paid for. After hours, they’re totally personable joes who go hang out like anyone else. Most Punch Clock Villains are not even particularly mean.

The distinction here between the mercenary and this type of villain is important.  The mercenary is technically a punch clock villain but comes across completely differently–as invested in their prey, usually.  The punch clock villain is literally doing a job.  It might be mopping the floor; it might be gutting the hero like a fish. [Read more...]

Literary Trope of the Week: Iconic Item

A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity.  It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect.  Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful.  As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).

The Literary Trope: Iconic Item

TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:

An Iconic Item is an object carried or used only by one specific character, which also serves to define the character. Seeing it immediately brings that character to mind. Seeing the object abandoned (i.e., on a battlefield or in a ditch) would cause the character’s friends to worry about his safety. Usually concludes with the character in question casually walking up shaken and asking if anyone has seen his Iconic Item.

While I don’t think I’d limit this to one character, I think we all can come up with examples of memorable objects in books, films, and shows that help us define characters and their relationships.

One of my favorite ‘iconic’ objects is the “Bartlet for America” napkin from The West Wing, which Leo gives to the President when trying to convince him to run for office.  Bartlet later frames the napkin and gives it to Leo as gift.  This object comes to symbolize their friendship and the campaign team itself.  A recent episode of Parks & Recreation featured Bradley Whitford (a West Wing alum) as a city councilman with a similar napkin framed in his office–solidifying the idea of the napkin as the iconic object that distills much of our sentimental feelings for the show into one image. [Read more...]