It goes without saying that today’s production of popular literature is dominated by genre-specific literature – often audiences seek out works of a particular genre because they know what to expect. This behavior also leads to the rise of genre-specific authors whom audiences seek out expecting similar work to the one they had read previously. Such narratives are driven by easily definable story structures commonly referred to as tropes which are often portrayed as negative and unimaginative in contrast with the originality of classics. This article seeks to emphasize the importance of tropes in popular literature/media and show how their usage does not lessen the qualitative value of a particular piece of artistic expression.
Before delving deeper into the discussion, one must first clearly delineate what one means by the term “trope”. From the perspective of rhetoric, trope refers to “a substitution of a word or phrase by a less literal word of phrase” (Lundberg & Keith, 2008, p. 66). The reference here is to various literary tools by which authors can construct an aesthetically superior narrative, but also tools that are not uncommonly used in day-to-day speech. For the purposes of this article, however, “trope” will be considered from the perspective of its newer meaning, i.e. a word used to describe “a common or overused theme or device” (Merriam-Webster, 2002).
This overflow of similar themes, story hooks, and pivotal story elements can often be confined to a single phrase. For example, in fantasy fiction one is frequently presented with a protagonist who starts out as a poor boy/girl in a long-forgotten village from which he/she sets out on an adventure – this became known as the farmer boy trope. Of course, the trope allows for variance. Frequently, the character in question is reluctant to go on a journey, but in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (to name just one example) Samwise Gamgee makes it his life’s mission to follow Frodo in his solemn task. It is important to point out that trope usage need not be intentional: it is difficult to ascertain whether Tolkien simply went for a trope or if what he did became a trope afterwards (considering his cultural impact, the latter is probably the case).
With repetitiveness being the defining characteristic of tropes, they are often viewed in a negative light, as if they are story resolution cheat codes that can simply be inserted into a narrative without much forethought. The true state of affairs, however, cannot be so simple: if a sellable, publishable story could be made with a simple merger of tropes, there would be no need for authors. Clearly, it takes skill to know how to organize tropes and how to best utilize them to serve one’s characters and plot. If this statement is taken to be truthful, then logic would entail that it takes even more skill to create something wholly original, a story that does not rely on tropes.
If one were to strip the discussion of popular vs. classic literature to its bare form, one could make an argument that it is in essence a discussion on aesthetical uniqueness. There is a reason why the works of Joyce or Tolstoy or Kafka are seen as classics: there is an underlying originality to these texts that cannot be found elsewhere. But it is not a question of mere originality; not everything they have written is an entirely new thing (Joyce’s Ulysses clearly draws inspiration from Homer’s classic by the same name).
These works introduced a new aspect to literature, they became paradigmatic, they serve as a basis from which some part of literature can be evaluated anew. It is impossible to clearly delineate what a classic is because any theory would have to be built on what already exists and in doing so would defeat the entire concept of aesthetical uniqueness. Reading Kafka is an experience unlike any other: a similar experience can be had from works that drew inspiration from him, and older works can be studied with Kafkian atmosphere in mind, but that new aesthetic experience will forever remain tied to Kafka’s name. Jerrold Levinson, university professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, remarked on the qualitative aspect of art as one that defines that which is truly unique:
[A]lthough not every work of art will be changed aesthetically if it undergoes structural change, still, every good work of art is such that a change in its structure changes its aesthetic content. Only bad or faulty WOAs can be altered without affecting them aesthetically; good WOAs are all aesthetically unique, i.e., have an aesthetic content not possessable or presentable by any other WOA (1980, p. 445).
He explains that these 'good' works are constructed in such a way that none of their element is superfluous; however, that is not to say that nothing in these works could be altered for the better - but such alteration would create a different aesthetic experience (if said alteration is significant enough to even be given thought).
From a critical perspective, classic works (and works that are to become classics with the passage of time) are lauded for their originality and cleverness. On the other hand, works of popular literature are demeaned for their usage of tropes and ‘tired’ plot structures (both statements are generalizations, but they reflect the classic ideal that is particular to literature). However, it is the central premise of this article that the label ‘popular’ is not an immediate sign of poor literature and that tropes are not inherently to be frowned upon – they are merely a signifier of something that differs from classic literature at its very core.
There is a certain form of mastery one must possess in order to craft narratives that audiences at large will constantly seek out. This is not something that can be forced and is most definitely not something that anyone can do. To take a recent example from a different medium: the stream platform Netflix had a problem with an overflow of mediocre content (‘mediocre’ being a generous word for some releases). Yet, almost all of Netflix’s content is aimed at the broad audience and can be labeled as popular. But why is it unsuccessful? Because writing a novel or a script that utilizes tropes in interesting ways is becoming progressively more difficult. In a sense, it is an entirely different skill set from traditional writing as such.
To provide another example, let us consider one of the oldest tropes: the damsel in distress. This trope places a female character (often a female body more than a character due to lack of any character traits or development) in a position where she needs saving. In the classic setup of this trope, she is saved by a strong male character with whom she almost always falls in love immediately after the act of salvation. From Greek myths, going through European fairy tales and medieval tales of knights, all the way to the modern era of comics and video games, this trope has survived and has often thrived. A tired trope, to be sure: but it is precisely the tiredness of this trope that keeps it relevant. The 2021 Netflix animated series Arcane has a narrative that is structured in such a way that female characters are placed in situations from which they require salvation.
Here the audience has been conditioned to expect a male knight or superhero to intervene, but the show does something else entirely: it builds up these female characters in such a way that when hardships come, they are able to persevere using their own strengths that they had developed and earned throughout the series. The impact of these moments stems from the well-woven narrative, but it also owes an enormous deal to the subversion of the trope that is familiar to almost all members of the audience.
The use (and/or subversion) of tropes is paramount for a vast commercial success of contemporary narratives for many reasons, the main one being the rise of easily consumable entertainment that stands as its clear opposition in the ever-lasting combat for audience's most valuable asset - time. Platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram realize this need of expediency: content is growing ever shorter and the bombardment with catchy music and flashy videography is ever present. Written narratives, such as novels, cannot keep pace with this frenzy: they demand time, and a lot of it. What tropes allow novels to do, however, is to make use of certain pre-set motivations that the audience is familiar with in order to draw them in and hopefully to determine them to seek out similar narratives.
But it is not a mere question of commercial success (although it seems to be the most important one in contemporary times). The true value of tropes lies in the fact that their use opens up corridors of communication with all previous narratives that have used them - they provoke thoughts, opinions, and discussions. Exploring, subverting, and imitating tropes give birth to new narratives from which even more shall certainly sprout.
In this day and age, when entertainment is growing ever faster and richer, classics can no longer afford to sit on their pedestal of originality, uniqueness, and paradigm-shifting narrative/tonal structure. The greatest ally to all literature is the current (over)production of genre literature - in a world that is ever-changing, there is a certain warmth and comfort in what trope-driven narratives offer. Maybe someone reading Stephen King will wonder who else ventured into the world of the bizarre, and maybe that path will lead them to Kafka and from Kafka onward to other classics. Or maybe some will forever stay in the familiar genre territory. Books are being read and ideas are being shared, that is what matters most. The imposed labels of 'classic' and 'popular' (as well as the names of the tropes) are, after all, only means to an end - the narrative art possesses irrefutable intrinsic value no matter the terminology one uses to describe it.
Levinson, J. (1980). Aesthetic Uniqueness. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 38(4), 435–449. https://doi.org/10.2307/430325
Lundberg, C. O., & Keith, W. M. (2008). The Essential Guide to Rhetoric. Bedford/St. Martin's.
Merriam-Webster. (2022). Trope. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved May 19, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trope
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Benes, E. (2013). Superman Saves Lois. [Digital Art]. Comic Art Community. Retrieved from: http://comicartcommunity.com/gallery/details.php?image_id=48775
Kafka: Metamorphosis. (nda). [Book Cover]. Medium.com. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/azure-s-whereabouts/franz-kafka-s-metamorphosis-in-our-life-and-interactions-pt-1-c8353dbb6d81
Sam and Frodo at the Onset of Their Journey. (2001). [Movie Still]. Movie-Screencaps.com Retrieved from: https://movie-screencaps.com/the-lord-of-the-rings-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-2001-4k/page/37
Vi. (2021). [Animated Series Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11126994/