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Lesson, The Fourth: Tropes and Story Patterns

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I am going to preface everything I say from here on out by saying that I am going to use the word “trope” in ways that are very untraditional, and some might even say incorrectly. Yet here will I appeal to that great authority and goddess of language which is prevailing patterns of usage, and claim that my usage of the word is indeed correct, simply based on the existence of so many other people actively using the word in this way (***cough***tvtropes.org***cough***). I trust that you, my trusty myrmidons, are not yet grown tired of my style of melodramatic communication.

I’m going to make a brief analogy to the world of coding and programming computers to hopefully kind of get you to understand the broad subject of tropes and story patterns and plot devices. Hopefully, some of you will be excited by my taking a discipline like literature that has been traditionally thought of as more esoteric and mystical, and comparing that with something as concrete as computer programming.

Essentially, tropes, story patterns, and plot devices are to the humanities what code libraries and maybe even functions are to programming. Before I go any further with this analogy, I should stress that I’m not an expert in computer programming. At all harhar. But I think it’s a useful way of thinking about literature. At this point we’ve covered things like vocabulary, grammar, and effective ways of messing around with those grammar rules and language patterns with human languages. Now we’re ready to move on to the level of stories themselves, and that’s where this analogy comes in. If you are a computer programmer, after learning the basic syntax, structure, rules, and functions or “vocabulary” if you will of a programming language, you’ll want to start making your own full-fledged, bona fide program — like a game.

To go slightly further with this analogy, this is also where you tend to hear the “practice practice practice” advice in both the world of coding and writing; well, I would argue that preparation in the form of effective memory training is practice, albeit slightly different practice, though just as if not more effective and efficient than traditional forms of practicing like writing endless essays or simple computer programs.

The process of using spaced repetition flashcards and software to practice certain interesting language patterns is analogous to deliberately imitating the style of your favorite writers and speakers. Imitation eventually gives way to some kind of creativity in many cases, and I’d like to argue that spaced repetition is a way to accelerate that traditional process.

Anyway, back to our gay metaphor—- I mean game metaphor ;-). You can write your whole game from scratch, and it’d take you a long time, but it’s theoretically possible to figure it out, and it could work. Still, this might be a huge waste of time and effort to figure it out all by your stinkin’ self because other programmers have likely already solved a lot of problems in their code that are similar to the problems that you’ll encounter while making your own game. So why waste your time coming up with and deriving your own solutions from the language’s basic rules, syntax, and vocabulary, when you can simply “borrow” so to speak a bit of code from a code library that is available for your language?

And indeed programmers do this all the time. And if you have a coding background, I’m sure you’re absolutely thrilled with my crude butchery of the details of your profession or hobby. But I think you know what I’m trying to say. When you’re writing or crafting a story with human language, a computer is not what you’re trying to influence. Influencing a human being is the direct purpose of storytelling.

If a computer program is a set of instructions for a computer, then maybe you could make the argument that a novel is a set of instructions for someone’s imagination. Such a set of instructions is like any other: a tool, so you should treat it like any other. In growing your story or novel, remember that the magnitude of your focus is far more important than the individual qualities of its constitution.

In a way very similar to coding, the bards and storytellers of the world have long shared themes, devices, strategies, and storytelling elements amongst themselves. Of course copyright infringement isn’t really where you want to be, but you can’t copyright an idea…only the expression of it. Perhaps even thanks to coding, you might say, these tropes and devices have been indexed and analyzed in various ways for your perusal.

Don’t ever let yourself fall into the trap of nit-picking the faults of one source of rhetorical figures, tropes and story patterns to the point of discounting that source completely. You can find faults, maybe a lot of them, with wikis online, but you can also find faults with literary journals and other sources within academia.

Take a higher level class with the right professor at a University, and you’ll be awed at how they destroy and demolish books in lecture that would otherwise strike you as pretty well-written books. And sometimes, an academic article or book will have been written by someone who is just about as unknown to you as a random editor or contributor on a wiki.

This is also where you’ll begin to see a major benefit of actually memorizing stuff instead of just knowing where it’s located in the library or on the Internet so you can look it up whenever you want. Tropes aren’t like figures of speech that operate on the level of spelling…they’re more like vocabulary. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon tens of thousands of these abstract patterns called tropes. To really come up with and successfully implement a creative combination of tropes…you’re going to need more than a database that’s indexed by a computer or search engine. You’re going to need a database that’s indexed by your brain!

Your brain can be actively aware of as long a chain of individual tropes as you want if you’re reading them for the first time on the Internet, but only one at a time if you haven’t memorized them yet (and, ahem, I’m looking at you TVTropers. Anyone who’s ever used that site knows what I’m talking about. Two minutes on that site and fifty tabs open). But if you have memorized thousands of tropes, your peripheral consciousness, that part of your mind that’s always riddled with an agglomeration of semi-active ideas lurking around and shifting to provide context to whatever you’re actively doing or thinking; that part of your mind can be aware of any number of unique and random trope elements that you’ve already committed to memory.

Also, here I will warn you, just as with computer programming, a working knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, style, and tropes is not the only thing that you need to come up with a creative story. And of course, access to a comprehensive library of tropes or code is no excuse for not coming up with your own ideas. A programmer with an encyclopedic knowledge of computer code can still write a dull and uninteresting program that people don’t really care about. And honestly, the greater his body of knowledge, the greater the time he could waste in doing so. In that sense, computer programming is just as much about influencing people as storytelling. When all is said and done, you still need a process for turning what you’ve put into your mind into something that other people’s minds will love, and that’s really a lecture for another day. So for now, let’s focus on tropes.

First, let’s talk about tropes and their names. Just like figures of speech or vocabulary, you’re probably going Jeez Dave why do I have to memorize the names. Well, let’s talk about that. Some tropes, just like the majority of figures of speech, have Latin names, and Latin is always good to know because it impresses people and makes you seem….smart and important. Har har har.

But no really. Knowing the names of tropes is useful for the same reason that it’s useful to know the names of figures of speech and obscure words. It allows you to refer to a complex or lengthy thought in one blow, and that’ll be useful in the limited realm of your memory, both long term and short term. There are academic names and terms for tropes….and there are silly, outrageous, and maybe even offensive trope names found in places like TVTropes.

Tropes are useful for knowing for really two specific reasons. Well maybe three if you count any increased appreciation for literature that you experience from knowing them. First, and perhaps most obviously, a detailed knowledge of tropes might spur your mind into some creative association between disparate tropes or ideas that already exist. Knowledge of existing tropes might even inspire you to create a new trope that doesn’t already exist. Second, once you’ve already come up with ideas and plot lines and characters and whatnot, a comprehensive knowledge of tropes can help you figure out where you’ve gone wrong. It can help you figure out where a part of your story is stale, stereotypical, or stuffy.

Some people will say you’re a hack if you only use existing tropes and ideas…the path of true literature is that of those who create new tropes and plot devices and situations. Ha ha. Yeah. Maybe. If that’s true, then Shakespeare was a hack. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to call Bullwinkle on this one. This overlooks the reactive nature of the literary field. I can’t even give any examples here because there are so many examples of fantastic literature that have been created solely or mostly by using already existing tropes. I think the real purpose of most literature is just hedonism. It’s some kind of pleasure. In fact, the pleasure and escape offered by good literature is and should be similar to that offered by drugs. I think you’ll have more fun, other people will have more fun, and you’ll probably make more money if you just write something that’s….fun, in some way.

So you can see, there are a variety of options at your disposal here, and it’ll probably take a bit of experimentation and experience before you settle on a style that suits you. Within reason, try a funner style that results in you doing more flashcards rather than a stricter style that results in less cards over the life time of the deck. Personally…it took me until about 3-4000 flashcards before I really hit my stride and developed my style as far as flashcard creation.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM

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