Bring on the Tropes   12 comments

Every story starts with a stranger in town or a journey. “Pa, we’re takin’ the wagon to Virginian City,” every story ends with “Golly gee, Wally. I thought we were goners.” True or False?

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Tolstoy Said

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

I love Tolstoy’s stories, but do I agree with his observation?

Yes

Tolstoy isn’t the only literary giant to make the observation that, it seemed to them, all stories fall into one of two categories: “stranger in a strange land” or “a stranger comes to town.”

We’re all familiar with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as represented in the journeys of Odysseus or Luke Skywalker. It’s so common that we hardly even notice it. A stranger passing through a land that is new to him encounters events that change him. In our traveling world today, we know this to be true because we’ve all experienced that transition wrought by new experiences, but the same held true from ancient times and the best storytellers borrow from real life to make compelling fiction. When I think about it, my series Daermad Cycle starts out as a stranger in a strange land tale. Although Padraig was raised in Celdrya, he’s been gone a long time and he sees the culture with new eyes. The journey is a common theme of many tales.

Likewise, the “stranger comes to town” trope has been around at least since Tolstoy, which for most of us is more than our lifetime. It’s the basis of every one of Clint Eastwood’s “Spaghetti” westerns. A stranger comes to town and something happens. It’s place based – a group of inhabitants who all know one another and an unknown character coming to town. That new element is the basis of conflict and the catalyst for change. Think “Our Town” or “The Man from Snowy River”.

Sometimes the “stranger” isn’t a person, but a force. In Transformation Project, the catalyst for change is societal chaos and the people of Emmaus are the group that is changed by it.

Sometimes the stranger is not a catalyst, but a a neutral observer viewing the activities of the static group, as in “The Scarlet Letter.” Or, in “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, Scout is not a catalyst for change, but an observer of change. There’s dozens of variations on this trope that could go anywhere. All of them will lead to character development, conflict, gain and/or loss, change and a conclusion. The outside element changing a static group is rich fodder for fiction writers.

But

I know for a fact that I’ve read and written stories about people who already know one another in a community they’re all familiar with, which suggests Tolstoy’s observation is at least partially wrong. The two tropes work because they are used all the time, but they’re not the only story patterns used.

“My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”

He moved on to become a great writer who mapped many popular storylines along a simple graph. He did a lecture that you can find on YouTube. I’m not going to explain it all, but he felt the most interesting story type he encountered was represented by the fairytale Cinderella. He thought of it as a staircase where Cinderella climbed into good fortune after her fairy godmother arrived. The high point was the ball and then she plummeted back into poverty and degradation, only to be rescued from darkness and brought to glory by her dashing prince.

It’s a “Rags to Riches” tale. It doesn’t involve a journey and nobody is exactly a stranger in town. Though they might not know each other before the ball, Cinderella lives within sight of the castle and the prince might have ridden by her home a few times.

I ran across a statistic claiming “Rags to Riches” stories represent about one-fifth of all written works. Think of the catalogues of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen for some examples. And, of course, there’s variations on that trope as well. Essentially, my series “What If Wasn’t” is a Riches to Rags story that holds out hopes for a return to riches — maybe. “The ‘Rags to Riches’ emotional arc is a story we all love to believe in. It embodies the American dream itself, a belief in hope and fairness, where regardless of beginning in bad times, effort can make things better and eventually result in good fortune. On the other hand, there is enjoyment to be had in seeing a life of ease destroyed and the character struggling to rebuild.

So, no!

I believe there are more than two types of stories. I think there are at least three (plus a converse), but probably more than that. Think how many stories involve “Overcoming the Monster” (Beowulf, for example) as a common plot type. Comedy often doesn’t follow the “stranger in a strange land” or the “stranger comes to town” tropes.

Specialization is Key

So why did Tolstoy make that observation? Maybe those are the books he encountered, although Tolstoy appears to have been a great reader who explored new ideas even into his elder years. It’s entirely possible that Tolstoy, literary giant that he was, could only think in those two types of plots. Think about what treasures he left us using those two plot arcs. Maybe there’s something to be said for specialization. Jack of All Trades is sometimes Master of None and clearly Tolstoy was a master. So was Vonnegut, though he wrote in different plot structures from Tolstoy. Specialization of plot allowed them to concentrate on other aspects like character development and setting details. Would they have been literary giants if they’d strayed from their plot tracks? Would that have taken them away from the aspects of writing that made them great? Maybe those other tracks are left for other writers, so they too can shine.

I personally look forward to fiction books that create all-new tropes because those are interesting to read because you can’t anticipate the next plot point. I wonder what my fellow blog-hoppers think of this subject.

Posted November 30, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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12 responses to “Bring on the Tropes

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  1. I think a good story has to have some type of conflict in it that gets resolved in the end, whether the main character is a stranger in town or not. Readers want a happy ending.

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  2. ” but they’re not the only story patterns used.” Right there is where the wheels come off your argument. Structure, style, plot devices were not the question. Every rags to riches, every ya gotta have faith, every stream of consciousness tale is a journey of either adventure, character, milieu, or force. Cinderella goes to the ball. Prior to that her faith is shaken, but her fairy Godmother comes to the rescue. That’s the story. Abuse and dreams. The Prince showing up with the other shoe is denouement. If She’d only had the moment, she’d still have had the experience, and we went with her. If a story takes up time and occupies space it is a journey regardless of whether at its culmination it is a success or failure we still took a trip. in the original version, the stepsisters cut their toes off to make the slipper fit which puts it into the Jonathan Swift / Vonnegut / Jane Austen social satire realm wherein the state of the milieu and its effect is the star of the story.
    That’s what I love about this group. Almost everyone has a gimmick or a device or a situation that’s outside the lines somehow. I need to see your work where nothing happens, everybody knows everybody, nobody goes anywhere and there’re two hundred pages of stasis. Structural devices are not story, but the clothesline on which the story hangs. Otherwise, we go somewhere, or some one or thing provides an inciting event. Even in something as short as Beckett’s “Breath” we are exposed to a force, much the same as music or the visual arts ( i might add poetry). The point is up to us, but we have to go along for the ride.

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    • I agree with you about the inciting event. You have to have conflict and catalyst to create change and I suppose that is a journey of sorts, but I would still argue that not every plot needs to be the “stranger in a strange land” or “stranger comes to town” scenario. There are other devices that can be used to achieve an inciting event, a period of catalyst and change, and a satisfying ending.

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      • Devices are an entirely other discussion. This one is yes/no. Something or someone happens. Regardless of device we are now on a journey. There is a narrator/narrative or SOC or activity when more than one word hits paper. One well chosen word would do. Jim kicks Bill. We’re off. Overthinking will kill you. We can talk devices all day but eventually we are off on a journey following the author’s journey whether its an idea, a star, a monster under the bed or someone with four personalities working them out. Those are are the components. Outisde of that we start, we go – the rest is optional. A disturbance in the force could be the stranger or the journey or both.

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  3. I think the newest trope is the cliffhanger endings so many authors use these days. Although in a way, it’s like the old serial stories that were published in newspapers instead of as novels.

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    • The old serials chose to pend on a conflict point so you’d buy the next newspaper/magazine, but also because it would just read weird to resolve stuff and then continue the story a week or month later. It does work to get readers to read the next book, but you have to (usually) resolve the cliffhanger quickly in the next book. If you do that consistently, you don’t (or at least I don’t seem to) lose readers going forward. The truth is, most of my cliff-hangers resolve within the sample text available on Kindle before you buy the book, so unless you’re following the series as it published originally, you can quickly figure out that I’m not being cruel. And, I always know how the cliff-hanger is going to resolve before I write it. What I object to is the cliff-hanger that makes me hold my breath and then I get to the next book and it’s a deux ex machina or something just boring. That’s not fair to the reader, in my opinion.

      I also hate the open ending for a standalone novel (or movie). I find myself wanting to contact the author and say “Hey, want to hire me to resolve this turkey for you?”

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  4. A most interesting read, Lela. I ‘get’ this now and will have a go at a post today. I first need to think a little as this is a new idea for me.

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  5. Pingback: Open Book Blog Hop – Storylines

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