Often, it seems the highest praise you can give a story is to say it avoids a common trope. And thanks to the Internet, everyone, including creators, is hyper-aware of this. But do we cherish trope-avoidance, instead of fresh storytelling?
I was thinking about this the other day, when I was writing a recap of a TV episode, and found myself mentioning a trope that the episode had managed to avoid. There was a certain amount of pleasure involved in this moment, I realized — first of all, I felt all clever for realizing that there was a trope the episode had sidestepped. And then, acknowledging this fact made me appreciate the episode in a new light. And finally, there was the realization that, most likely, the people making the episode had also been aware of the trope in question, and had consciously avoided it.
I also thought about it a bit after posting a link to the hilarious "World War II assessed as if it were a fictional TV show" rant, which pointed out all the tropes that World War II was guilty of. Which, as Bones creator Hart Hanson pointed out, really was what a lot of fan criticism sounds like.
It's like judging a sporting event — you see the trope in the path of the narrative, and you sit on the edge of your seat. The trope is a sand pit, and you wait to see if the trope manages to vault over it safely. Then you award points for form. (Really, I should say "I," rather than "you," since I do this all the time.)
It's part of what I love about the Internet, and about the pervasiveness of media-geekery. We're all insanely aware of the places that our stories tend to go, including some fairly obscure stuff that nobody would have thought of as "tropes" years ago. I mean, people always obsessed about clichés in storytelling, but not at the level that people have reached with sites like TVTropes. We've managed to broaden and deepen the scope of human knowledge regarding clichés.
Truly, this is the golden age of modern metafictional geekery. How did we manage to be alive in such a time of plenty?
There's just one thing more exciting, to the devoted story nerd, than a story that consciously avoids a trope — the story that subverts a trope. That's like, the story runs up to the sand pit, and instead of vaulting over, it, it blasts the sand with a LASER until it's turned to glass, and then rollerskates across. Early Buffy The Vampire Slayer is full of Olympics-level trope subversion — there's a possessed dummy, but it's actually a good guy! Good misdirection is always a pleasure of storytelling, but misdirection that plays with the expectations that past helpings of pop culture have created — that's the ultimate.
(And I think it's important to talk about pleasure here. Because part of what goes along with this consciousness about "tropes" on the part of both audiences and creators is a recognition that part of the pleasure of consuming a narrative comes from engaging with it actively. We get pleasure from recognizing that something has been done well, just as we get pleasure from tearing apart something that's been done badly. As with the active engagement that comes from spoilers and rumors, the internet has helped us all to enjoy being active. And in turn, a lot of creators seem to cooperate with fans in helping to dissect their own work, because they know we enjoy it. Oh, and one more thing — there's no wrong way to take pleasure from a story, unless you're a serial killer or something. If you're enjoying yourself by being either infinitely nitpicky or not nitpicky at all, don't let anybody tell you that you're doing it wrong.)
Or more recently, the episode of Supernatural that introduced a third Winchester brother displayed an Impala-sized awareness of our nerdspectations. Not only was the episode called "Jump The Shark," but they met the third brother in a café named after Cousin Oliver, the Brady Bunch relative introduced late in the show's run. And yet — wait for it — the show totally subverted the "long lost relative appears out of nowhere" trope.
So yay, we're all metafictional now. But what I was wondering is: is avoiding or subverting a trope the same thing as fresh, original storytelling? And do we all place so much emphasis on how a story navigates the minefield that we lose sight of the most important thing, whether the story has power or not?
Of course, the two things aren't exactly mutually exclusive. And part of the hope of being super-conscious of the sand pit is that you hope that we'll go someplace beautiful instead of getting stuck there. But on the other hand, sometimes you can just watch a story avoid a trope — and then have noplace else to go. I guess it's like vaulting over the sand pit and then not nailing the landing.
But even beyond the fact that "absence of cliché" doesn't equate to "presence of inventive storytelling," there's also the question of whether we're looking at the wrong thing. In true nerd fashion, maybe we're overly focused on the details. Maybe we tend — and by "we," I definitely mean "me," among others — to fixate on the presence or absence of too-familiar story elements, instead of thinking about whether the story as a whole was fresh, or strong, and whether it moved us.
(I'm not saying give a free pass to lazy writing, natch. But lazy writing isn't the same as falling into one of the thousand "been there done that" boxes.)
Really, what storytellers should aspire to, and what us audience-members should look for, is truthfulness. Characters who feel real, and who breathe. Stories that have a momentum that comes from people's emotions as well as the progression of ideas. Because stories that feel like they're being honest and letting their characters be real people will also feel fresh. It's the characters and the ideas, and how truthfully the story plays them out, that make it fresh.
Like Basia says, "It's really me and you/We're watching on the tube." (Yes, I was listening to Basia while I was writing this. You got a problem with that?) An idea you've seen a million times can take a whole new life if you feel like you've never seen this character in that situation, and you care enough and relate enough to see how that plays out. Likewise, a story can avoid falling into the trap of repeating older stories, in a clever way that feels totally mechanical.
Of course, the "freshness" or "truthfulness" of a story is a lot harder to talk about than whether it zigged or zagged, and whether we saw that zag coming. But you know, us nerds love a challenge, right?