That gun is loaded

Riza Hawkeye, from Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu.

Nothing like a sniper to teach one gun safety. Riza Hawkeye, from Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu.

Would you feel comfortable with someone waving around a gun they do not know is loaded? How do you feel about someone who is not a marksman doing trick shooting?

No, this is not a post about Gun Control or Firearm Safety, it is a post about writing.

No one in their right mind will deny the fact that stories humans tell have patterns. Some of these patterns, over time, become so common that they earn the title of “trope” or “cliché.”  You know some of them by sight, having seen them again and again. New ones appear every so often, Sometimes old ones go out of fashion, and sometimes they return and, for a little while, seem new again. Sometimes “new” tropes and clichés are actually old ones in disguise.

Let me pause a moment to define how I am using these terms:

Trope: a common or overused theme or device

Cliché: something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective

A trope can be a cliché, but not every trope has to be. “Cliché” is what happens when that loaded trope misfires and a character, scene, or entire story dies to the reader’s interest because of it. I know you know the feeling.

That moment, in a movie, where that thing that always happens, happens and you groan inside. For that moment in the story, if not for the whole of it, the writers have lost you. You are back in reality and rolling your eyes at the choices made in creating the film.

The story lies bleeding. Maybe it’s just a fleshwound. Maybe it is fatal. Either way, it could have been avoided.

So the question becomes: How can we, as writers, practice acceptable trope-safety?

Step 1: Awareness

We are all inundated with tropes. Whether they would arise from our minds independently, or whether we are simply fed them from early childhood, they are in us. Chances are the first thoughts coming out of your head when you sit down to write, are tropes. In order to avoid any unpleasantness later on, you need to learn to recognize them, see them for what they are.

Step 2: Acceptance

I am of the opinion that tropes are neither good nor bad. I know people who struggle to avoid them altogether. The truth is, that is a trope in itself and often creates meaningless mush. Tropes exist, and continue to exist, because they serve purposes, and often serve them well. Fearing them is counter-productive. You will never be able to write anything meaningful by avoiding them completely. If you don’t believe me, spend some time wandering around*. There is a trope for everything.

*Warning. This website will eat your time like a huge time-eating sarlacc.

Step 3: Education

So we cannot avoid tropes. What, then, should we do with them to prevent accidental story mutilation?

Before a firearm can be either safely used, or safely discarded (whatever your preference) the person who has it must know what it is and think about what they want to do with it. The key is education and thought. Learn to recognize tropes, decide not to fear them, and then be deliberate in how you use them. The difference between effective use of a trope and a trope-turned-cliché can be very slight.

This sounds vague, I know, but I cannot tell anyone how to use tropes because there are so many and I have no idea how any writer, other than myself, wants to use them. I think there are a few strategies, though.

a. Turn the trope a little. Don’t change it entirely, but tweak it (and make sure you know if the tweaked trope is also trope). Think of this like a feint. Your audience gets something just different enough from what they expected to cause them to look at it more closely.

b. Flip it. This one is pretty common, so be careful. It is usually referred to as an inverted trope. Princess saves knight can work quite well, but inverted tropes are tropes, too, and can become cliché or, worse, feel forced.

c. Play it straight. Be very intentional. Know what you are doing, and have a good reason why. It is a little safer to do with with less-common tropes, but sometimes it’s fun to go with the “well-worn.” Just try to avoid doing this by accident because purposeless tropes easily become boring or even annoying.

d. Subvert it. If there is a trope you really don’t like, consider using it to make a point against itself. This is the ultimate bait-and-switch of storytelling. I don’t particularly like this strategy, though it is sometimes very effective. Just be careful not to make war on straw.

e. Leave it. If the story will work just as well if you abandon the trope, or move to a less-expected one, then maybe you should do that. While tropes can be fundamental to plot or character, often times they are just trappings. Trappings can matter a lot, but not all are of equal worth.

f. Beware the implications of your tropes. This isn’t so much a strategy as very good advice. If you write about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, make sure you don’t miss the problematic undercurrents. Whether you play them straight or subvert them, being unaware of them can undermine whatever story you are trying to tell.

Ultimately, this post is me working through these questions for myself. I value input, and if this post has helped make you more aware of tropes, or helped you see new ways of dealing with them, then I am glad. Many times have I seen a perfectly good story or character fall prey to careless trope-use. If I can see it less in my own work, and less in the work of others, I will be very happy.

Do your part to reduce story mortality!

Practice Trope Safety:

Awareness, Acceptance, and Education.


I would like to dedicate this to BeKindRewrite. I promised her, long ago, that I would write this post.  She has written many good articles on this kind of thing, too. For starters, check this out: How to Be Original

Riza Hawkeye from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by She's awesome with handguns, too. Riza Hawkeye from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by Arakawa Hiromu.

She’s awesome with handguns, too. Riza Hawkeye from the anime “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”, adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by Arakawa Hiromu.


About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

32 responses to “That gun is loaded

  • bobraxton

    My rural NC parents taught us – the gun is always loaded (never point it at any human being). Makes me wonder whether it would be a good idea to call myself a writer any more.

    • jubilare

      It sounds to me like you are ahead of the curve. After all, the trope is always loaded, too. Know your trope, watch your aim, and never fire at random. ;)

  • Colleen

    I’m impressed. I am never this analytical.

  • Brenton Dickieson

    “Practice Trope Safety” Nice.

  • palecorbie

    Does this mean I have to instictively throw myself to the floor every time someone picks up a pen?

    Seriously, though, this post is awesome. Would you mind if I signal-boosted it a little? Warning anyone who has not been on t’internet long enough to know about TVtropes is a good idea, too…though if not for wikiwalking about that place I’d never have found out that the odd gendered reaction trend towards Uracabarameél was down to him being a Keet…

    May I recomend you a superhero comic? Shadoweyes makes very good use of tropes, much in the manner you describe (plus it’s been a while since I’ve seen such good/deep characterisation in a graphic format – the characters are very much teenagers and human beings).

    Two unrelated things: I have sent you a buttload of tea, due to a situation where I suddenly have a tea mountain, and if you give me a word/words and a number/numbers between 1-12, fun things may occur.

    • jubilare

      Trope alert!

      I don’t mind at all. It’s here to be useful.
      If I didn’t enjoy tvtropes so much then it probably wouldn’t be so voracious of my time, but it can be tricky finding a balance between its usefulness and getting actual writing done. ^_~

      Sure! Is it a webcomic or traditional format?

      Hmm. Don’t fall victim to a tea avalanche, please.
      Oh… liminal cat and 7.

      • palecorbie

        weeooo weeooo!

        You might’ve been shy, though. Ha, well, I think that’s just the addictive nature of TVTropes.

        Both – once the first book was out, he started putting it online, so ’tis easy to find.

        If you don’t like your buttload, you can redistribute it. It contains nothing Annes hate, at least. I’ll try not to, but good grief, there’s a lot.
        That’s 2 words – choose another number. ^_^

        • jubilare

          I’d be shy if suddenly my blog were inundated, but I think that unlikely.

          Ok, I will check it out.

          I always appreciate tea. I am just pondering where to put it.
          Ah, I didn’t realize they needed to be balanced. Liminalcat? But I suppose I can just give you another number. How about 11.

        • jubilare

          Replying to previous post in order to avoid comment squishage.
          Hm… Hauberk, Quandry and Yodel? 7, 8 and 9.

          *Deep sigh* aye…
          Unfortunately I don’t know how to translate it into a right-side-up smiley. It’s sort of a frowny-smirk… resigned.

  • Stephanie

    I’ve only spent a little time on TVTropes in the past, but this makes me want to go in to help identify what tropes I’m using. That scares me somewhat – there are more tropes in the speculative fiction section than you can shake a stick at. There! I spot three already, and I’m not even done with the A’s.

    But you’ve also been reassuring (and I think you’re right) to say that tropes aren’t evil – I also like the idea of tweaking a trope as a “feint.” That’s a very good way to put it. My brother has oft said a good book is like a magic trick – pledge, turn, prestige.

    And now that I keep looking through this…it might actually be giving me some ideas.

    And this is a tremendous coincidence: I took an NRA Basic Pistol class yesterday and shot a gun for the first time. I burned my arm on a shell!

    …So just as we pretend a gun is always loaded, we should know a story will always have tropes. The trick is knowing where to aim them and when to pull the trigger. : )

    • jubilare

      Yes, do! But be strong and don’t let learning about the tropes you are using make you nervous about them (unless you discover a darned good reason to be nervous other than the fact that they are tropes). You own them, they don’t own you.

      Sometimes it is a good idea to take a book you really like and see what tropes the author used to good effect. or (which has so many that they are separated into alphabetical categories, but beware, this has tropes from all the Dune books and films lumped together) might be good places to start. ;)

      I get ideas from TVtropes more than I am humbled by it (though the humbling is very useful, too). Just be careful, I’ve had half a day disappear into its depths before.

      Hmm, I like the way your brother thinks. ^_^ I’ve long been of the opinion that stories develop patterns for a reason, and for that reason I tend to like tropes. I want to surprise readers without cheating or deceiving them, if that makes sense. That’s why I like the feint-type use of tropes. :P

      Ow… did the casing leave a mark? Have you made up a dramatic story of how you got it? I will add you to my list of people I know who have handled a handgun. A writer never knows when she might need such expertise.

      Exactly. Aim for trope-marksmanship! :D

  • Stephanie

    Reading Book Thief’s list does help. I’m amused that more than one of the tropes reference Snicket.

    It did leave a mark! I’m hoping it will scar, but it is a small burn on the back of my arm (the casing got caught in my sleeve) and unfortunately not very noticeable. I have spent some time pointing it out to people. : )

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