Monday, July 8, 2013

Conventions vs. Tropes

Genre conventions? Genre tropes? Different? Same?

I say different, but feel free to argue with me.

First, definitions.

Conventions. They’re not those things writers go get drunk (I mean, learn stuff) at. (Well, they are but not in this particular situation.) Conventions n. things that make a genre a genre. They occur in the big five as I’ve begun calling them—science fiction (sf), fantasy, horror, mystery, and romance.

Examples: SF – advanced tech. Fantasy – magic. Horror – something disturbing. Mystery – serious crime committed. Romance – happily ever after (HEA)

If you take these elements away, a book doesn’t fall in the genre anymore. So conventions are defining fundamentals.

Tropes. Not those things you vaguely remember from high school chemistry. (Those were isotopes and not related to writing.) Tropes n. things that often appear in works of a certain genre but are not necessary to said genre.

Let’s use those conventions to look at this.

-SF/advanced tech - There are lots of possibilities for advanced technology in a sf world. Tropes are the ones we see most often—faster-than-light travel (FTL), lazar weapons, teleportation chambers, group think machines, etc. Cool, but not necessary. Avoiding these and finding new potential tech (or even putting a new spin on the existing tropes) makes the story more interesting.

-Fantasy/magic – Magic is pretty broad and, really, pretty vague. George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series is fantasy, but for anyone who’s read “Game of Thrones,” you know there isn’t a lot of magic. By contrast, the wizards in “Harry Potter” use magic for everything from chopping vegetables to fighting. That’s a big spectrum.

What are some magic tropes? Well, the “magic school” is one—Hogwarts, Hex Hall, Earthsea, etc. It appears in quite a few places, but not all fantasy novels need incorporate it. The “chosen one” is another trope. Harry Potter, Garion, Richard Cypher, etc. All have been set up for greatness by elements outside their control, and none can shirk their duties because if they do, humankind will perish. Again, seen pretty often but not mandatory.

-Horror/something disturbing – I don’t just mean blood and guts. Actually, I don’t mean blood and guts at all. While that may be part of a horror book, it’s not all there is to “disturbing.” Psychological horror relies on breaking down the reader’s mental defenses. Sometimes horror is more affective when it’s not gross.

Now, tropes. Blood and guts have been done in their various forms. Zombies—oh man. So many zombie books/movies. Heck, even the “nice” zombie has been done. Essentially, the scary creature/scary ooze that will make everyone into scary creatures thing, among others, crops up a lot.

-Mystery/serious crime – Usually murder. Why? Because it needs to be something serious enough for the reader to invest interest, and murder is pretty serious. It doesn’t have to be murder, though. Grand theft of extremely valuable possessions or cash also works, as does child abuse in its various forms. So the serious crime is the convention. Murder is an often-used trope that can be replaced by an equally serious crime.

-Romance/HEA – You need a HEA in a romance. If you do not have a HEA, it is not romance. End of story. How you get there and who you get there with may vary, and there are plenty of often-used options. Alpha males, guy/girl from wrong side of the tracks. I don’t read a lot of romance but setting up a group of guys/girls and then showing a HEA for each of them throughout a series seems pretty common. Just make sure you have the HEA. Once you have that, be creative with the how. I’ve been told by people who have much more experience reading and writing romances that it’s very easy to fall into patterns and formulas but that it’s not impossible to be original.

Side note: Romance actually shows an interesting case of a convention being broken-ish. There’s a new thing going for ya or this “new adult” thing—HFN, happy for now. The idea is that younger characters might not stay with who they end up with at the end of the book. I’m not saying this is a good or bad variation. I’m just saying it exists. Debate at your own risk. It’s just an interesting example of how such a necessary convention of a genre can be altered. “Follow the rules till you make it. Then turn the rules on their head.”

I was up at my June residency for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program the week before last. Every res, the head of the program poses a question that becomes the residency theme. This time, it was “What are you sick of seeing in your genre?” We spent a lot of time that week talking about tropes, and it occurred to me that tropes and conventions often walk a narrow line. Sitting down to write this post, however, I have revised that statement. Conventions and tropes often can walk a fine line. There are some elements of a genre, though, that just are.

So what am I sick of in my genre (fantasy)?

I feel like a game show host. That will be the topic of next Monday’s post. “Find out…after the break.”

Until then, have a good week and maybe try to guess. Heck, leave a comment with a guess. Five bonus points to anyone who gets one right. (I don’t have a purpose for “bonus points” yet, but I have an exceptionally good memory. Someday, those bonus points might translate into cool stuff.)

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