The Trope Series will be an ongoing, multiangle look at Tropes—what they are, how you can use them, as well as highlighting some specific tropes each month. My hope is that both readers and writers can get something out of these posts.
First, what is a trope? Well, a trope is a tool that storytellers use (see the hyperlink). It’s a necessarily broad definition because tropes can pertain to a vast array of story-pieces. There are tropes for characters (such as the hero, the villain, and every side character you can think of). There are narrative tropes (such as the inciting incident and the climax). Tropes that pertain to genre (such as sci-fi or romance) or media (books or video games).
So, what’s the point? Tropes sound a lot like clichés. They’re not necessarily. A trope is just a tool. There are some really obscure tropes and some that are overdone but still awesome every time you see them. And there are some that have been overdone to the point of them being cliché.
How are we (storytellers) supposed to use tropes? Any way that we need to. If you’re stuck at a point in your plot and aren’t sure where to go, you can try applying a plot structure or look for subplot tropes that would fit. Or you can look up some of your favorite stories on TvTropes and see what tropes they used. Then use them in your own story.
Which brings me full circle back to TvTropes (the original link). TvTropes is a repository of tropes (kind of like Wikipedia, but for storytelling devices). You can search their website by trope, or by story. Both stories and tropes are cross-listed so if you can search for the movie The Matrix and see all of the tropes that appear in the movie. Then you can click on a specific trope and see all the different books/movies/video games/etc that also use that trope.
But be careful! TvTropes is both one of the best research aids for storytellers and one of the deepest rabbit holes and time-sinks. It’s easy to spend a hour (or multiple) browsing their database, so make sure you don’t spend too much time researching when you should be working (or writing)!
Anyway, so what’s the point of this post? Well, I’m starting a new series that will alternate with my every other week author tools/motivation posts: Monthly Obscure Tropes! Instead of covering the big tropes, I’ll be covering smaller, obscure ones—ones you didn’t realize were tropes and maybe some you haven’t heard of. Each post will focus on a different trope and have examples from popular books and movies. So keep a lookout every other week for those! I’m working on the first few and it’s been a lot of fun so far.
MONTHLY OBSCURE TROPE — TRAINING MONTAGE
I’ll be honest, part of why it took me so long to start this series of posts is because I had absolutely no idea where to start with it! TVTropes is a rabbit hole if there ever was one.
Some of you might be familiar with that meme template. For those of you who aren’t, the panels are from Shen Comix @shencomix. Side note: Canva is pretty good for making your own memes.
Anyway, I decided to start with a trope that everyone and their mother knows to better illustrate how familiar tropes can be. So let’s start with an inaugural trope to start this whole series off: The Training Montage. This is probably one of the most well-known obscure tropes. The movie will put on some inspirational music and cut to snippets of the hero training in various grueling ways, all to show the viewer that our hero has put in some serious work.
You can find training montages in sports stories, action-adventure stories, sometimes even in romances and cartoons, but they’re probably best remembered in movies. If you’re up for some homework (and who is, am I right?) think back on your favorite movies and books and see if you can spot any training montages.
For today, I want to focus on just two movies in particular, and if you haven’t seen these movies I’m sure you can Youtube the segments I’m going to talk about.
Rocky and The Matrix.
I would wager that Rocky is the movie that comes to mind when we think of Training Montages (or at least us born before the internet). It’s got everything—It’s got Gonna Fly Now playing. It’s got Rocky running, doing push ups, and punching slabs of meat. It’s the training montage by which all others are measured.
And it’s completely necessary within the story (no real spoilers incoming). At the start of the movie, Rocky is a washed up boxer who gets a shot at fighting the World Heavyweight champ. In the movie, roughly a month passes (as I remember it) between Rocky getting the opportunity and the boxing match actually happening. There’s no way our hero would have a chance in the state we find him in and there’s no other way we can cram a month’s worth of training into a two hour movie—cue the Training Montage! This way we can see the real work our boy is putting in to get into shape without taking away too much time from other story and character development.
Let’s turn toward The Matrix for our second example and a subversion of the trope (minor spoilers incoming). In The Matrix, we’re also led to believe that our protagonist, Neo, will need to go through some kind of training montage to go from pencil pusher to soldier. However, instead of training to hone his skills, he just downloads the information and skills into his brain. We’re shown a brief shot of him sitting in a chair, eyes moving beneath the lids like he’s dreaming while a computer shows a loading bar. At the end of the shot, Neo wakes up and utters the iconic line, “I know Kung-Fu.”
So why bring up both of these examples? First, I love the movies. Second, it brings me to my closing point.
As I said at the start, tropes are more than cliches. Tropes are tools–they’re reader expectations. Once you understand what a trope is, you can use it to your benefit, twist it, change it, or completely turn it on its head–like The Matrix did with its Training Montage.
If you’re a writer, you should make a point to understand the tropes of your genre. It’s kind of like that old rule, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them. Tropes are no different. You can’t just up and decide to write a romance novel without having at least watched a few romantic movies (and even then you’re probably still setting yourself up for failure). Start with the genres you love, the ones you’re most familiar with, and understand the common tropes.