Thursday, May 16, 2013

I knew you were going to say that (as the fortune teller said to her punter)

The Urban Dictionary defines a trope as an overused plot device.

These tropes describe prefabricated situations that make anyone with at least two functioning brain cells and a love for inventiveness, cringe and fight the temptation to teach the book the true meaning of the word 'defenestration'. With tablets and Kindles still costing as much as they do, this may have saved a few trope-ridden tales from such a violent death but that doesn't excuse their authors for crimes against literature.

Here are some of my least favourite tropes but sadly my list is far from exhaustive. Anyone submitting their manuscript to our book publishing company would do well to bear these in mind!

Here comes the cavalry

Just in time!
Just in the nick of time the good guy(s) rescue: the damsel in distress, the victim facing the evil psychopath, the giddy teenagers from the malevolent ghost that they've conjured up and so on. Sadly, in real life, this is often not the case. Victims don't get saved in time, lost kids don't get found and true-life stories don't necessarily have happy endings.

Spilling the beans

Oh how I so hate this one. Why, oh why, can't some authors write a dénouement that doesn't involve a monologue from the resident bad guy in which he explains everything. Our poor hero/heroine can't get a word in edgeways while our (hitherto) insanely clever criminal can’t blurt out all the finer details of their crime(s) fast enough. Since the crimes they've committed in the stories are usually carried out for reasons of power, and that keeping secrets may be the only way in which they maintain any of this 'glory' after they've been arrested, it doesn't exactly add up, does it?

One, two, three, gotcha!

I first figured this one out as a young lad watching Hammer Horror films long after my guardians had retired, too terrified to continue viewing. Creak! Our victim in the haunted house/mummy's tomb/graveyard hears a sudden and very scary noise. Phew! It turns out to be harmless. Bang! Another noise, perhaps a bit different - but it's harmless too. The victim smiles in relief just before they’re grabbed by the psychopathic killer/mummy/zombie etc from behind. To my mind, it couldn't have been more obvious if the author had put a spoiler up.

Survival of the righteous

Although there are plenty of other examples, a battle scene does this the most justice. Minor characters get shot to pieces by ricocheting bullets whereas the hero can stand up in a rain of ordinance and walk away virtually unscathed (apart from the odd scratch which they can bear in a suitably heroic manner). Sadly, cemeteries are stuffed full of real-life heroes who gave their lives for others.

True love will out

"I knew we'd find one another"
Will it? Well, hold me down. Why is it that the good guy always has to get his girl in the end? In formulaic romances where this is the required ending, who can criticize? But, in other books - especially non-romances - there is no earthly reason why this has to be the case. Anyone looking at divorce statistics will quickly ascertain that, if the maxim of good guys getting the girl (or whatever other combination you choose to come up with) holds true, there can't be very many good guys in the real world.

These are just a few of the tropes that wind me up - unfortunately the full list would be very long. As boss of our book publishing company, I acknowledge that coming up with a truly original idea that no-one has ever used before isn’t possible. However to trot out the same old devices over and over again is just a demonstration of sloppiness in the plot department.

Clive West is director of Any Subject Books - a publishing company. He's also author of a popular anthology of short stories and a multi-five-starred blockbuster, The Road.


  1. Thanks for this blog post. It was surprisingly useful. In the novel I'm currently writing there was only one of these present, but that was easily fixed by rearranging a few sentences. I'll definitely bear these tropes in mind, when writing my future projects.

  2. Glad you liked it, CC. Maybe you'd like to read one of my twist-in-the-tail short stories some time? ;)

    Shameless plug, I know.