Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trimming the Tropiary

First, let me apologize--the storm has somehow thrown me off kilter in terms of schedule. I got stuck in Wednesday and failed to notice Friday had come--and gone. So here, belatedly, is an essay on genre tropes.

Twelve years ago, in 2004, TV Tropes was first launched into the world of the internet, and since then it's been altering and educating audiences around the world, encouraging analytical thinking and ironic commentary in all areas of public media. TV Tropes was to fiction what Aarne-Thompson fairy tale classification was for the folk and fairy-tale genres: a way of classifying and discussing the taxonomy of fiction, calling out recurring patterns and recognizable motifs. For a time it seemed to honestly set the online fan discussion world on fire, and it continues to have a steady effect on how fans understand and evaluate fiction.

A Dragon Topiary

Fans have become familiar with entire ranges of patterns, drawn from all sources and with roots as old as written records of story-telling or as recent as reality shows. Fans have become more and more familiar with the building blocks of fiction, calling out patterns such as the deus ex machina to the modern Mary Sue and Marty Stu. 

The upside is a refreshing new common recognition that literature is made of recurring patterns, and that these patterns are shared across the broad range of story telling. Fans seem far more aware these days that stories depend on structure and on structural elements: that an orphaned child almost cries out for a wicked step-family, a supernatural challenge, and a happy ending, and an old soldier on the road cries out for a wealthy heiress in need of a clever trickster of a husband. On the other hand, TV Tropes seems to have also brought about a certain level of both misunderstood tropes, and just as bad, a generation of people who have mistakenly understood the message to be that writers who use tropes are not creative or original. Both problems have bearing on how fans parse fiction and what they expect--and sometimes the news is bad.

Take, for example, the previously mentioned deus ex machina. The term comes from Greek theater, and refers to the portion of a play in which the Gods descend from above, hoisted on giant pulleys and levers, to resolve the story, make the moral pronouncements, and basically serve as the "fat woman" without whom the opera can't end. Over time the term came to mean a way of resolving a story that's not specifically accounted for in the set-up and construction of a narrative. It means an out-of-the-blue resolution, unachored and ungrounded, imposed without preparation in terms of logic or emotional arc. It's the opposite of the oft-cited Chekhov's Gun, used to describe something used at a critical point in a story which is established far earlier in the narrative. The playwright Chekhov argued that prominent features of a story should also be necessary--if they were not necessary they should not be featured. If you featured a gun in act one, it should be shot at some point--and that shooting should matter. Otherwise there should be no gun.

In ancient times a deus ex machina was not seen as unsupported--a gun appearing out of nowhere to be fired without preparation. Greek theater was originally religious ritual, the Gods seen as not only present everywhere, but the presumed context of the play. Their appearance did not need preparation within the internal structure of the script because they were already established in the external structure of the culture. In time, however, the Gods were no longer presumed--and the establishment of major resolving elements with a script did come to be presumed and expected. Gods of the Machine came to look a bit silly--and Chekhov's Guns became the gold standard of efficiently set-up narrative. It's a wonderful thing to have modern fans aware of the paired ideas. 

Nice, clear Figment topiary, Epcot Center

It's less wonderful, though, when fans, reading quickly, lightly, and often with very little actual literary training prior to finding TV Tropes, are mistaken in the nature and meaning and context of what they have learned. TV Tropes, wonderful as it is, is like all of the internet--read and cherished by everyone at large, including the usual selection of idjits, boobs, and inexperienced Trope mavens who exhibit more enthusiasm than comprehension. So it comes to pass that one finds quite a lot of fans talking about deus ex machina as though anything they failed to spot--any resolution that surprised them--qualified for the term. Or go looking for Chekhov's guns as though there were never an excuse for a true structural case of something utterly unexpected and untelegraphed. 

Both mistakes are wrong. A deus ex machina is always a resolution created by what is essentially imposed force. Like a studio borrowing the US cavalry horses and riders from one film to wrap up the conclusion of a cheap rom-com. So long as the resolution is drawn from existing elements presumed in the story, and legitimately deployed, you are not dealing with deus ex machina. Gandalf showing up at the Battle of Hornburg backed up by the remaining Rohirrim is not deus ex machina because, while you may have missed the various cues that allow the last-hour rescue to surprise and delight you, they are there--you can track back and determine enough to accept that the forces were there, Gandalf had gone to fetch them. One of the real frustrations of my fan-reading life over the past decade or so has become the false claim of deus ex machina by someone who simply failed to catch the clues, and who is disgruntled at having been surprised--and who chose to blaspheme the author by trying to suggest that surprising the viewer meant the author didn't play fair or do it right. Here's the thing--often the best author is the one who shows only enough to justify an outcome, while still permitting it to be a surprise. If you come away having been fooled, that's often to the writer's credit, not to his shame.

Similarly readers go on Chekhov's gun searches so intense you'd think every trivial element of a narrative had to lead to some great and meaningful reprise. It's an easy inference to draw from Chekhov's own comment:

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.

Taken too literally, the mention of shoes should inherently lead to an important shoe-denouement, and the discussion of a blonde woman's hair should lead to some vital conclusion in a hair salon. The truth is more difficult: even repeatedly recurring elements need not be used in a vital manner. Blonde women may be more important for their role in setting tone and style than they are for bringing about clearly derived blonde events. Some recurring patterns are like good wall paper--merely there to fill blank walls and add texture and visual appeal to an otherwise drab stage set. A single freestanding movie or novel can seldom carry more than two or three Chekhov's guns...nor would the author wish it to, unless the author were playing a sort of literary joke, offering a punch line to an audience prepared to giggle at the absurdity of waiting for Godot over and over again. 

That's the contradictory nature of having the wonderful TV Tropes site out there--it's done more to educate fans in ways of analyzing narrative than any other popular source I can think of in my lifetime...but it's also brought in a lot of people who are losing track of the precision of the terms and tropes they use. In a garden of tropes with crisp, sharp meanings, they've gotten a bit lax in their pruning style, and the tropiary is a big shaggy and hard to understand as the precision is lost. 

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