On Tropes and Subversions Thereof

In case it isn’t already obvious, I like to analyze tropes. Whether or not I do it effectively is another question altogether, but I am fascinated by what draws certain people to certain tropes. What makes one person roll their eyes, stirs deeply the heart of another. What makes me shrug, might make you swoon. What makes her giggle might make me wince.
Yet some tropes are relatively universal. Maybe not everyone likes them, but enough people do that a given trope could endure in a hundred movies, a thousand songs, and a hundred thousand books, and people would still seek it out. However, because some tropes are that beloved–seemingly too common and also ofttimes sloppily executed–we can grow weary even of that which we love. Not just one person rolls their eyes now, but everybody.
Enter the trope subversion. The supposed magical cure for an overused trope (or is it…). “The Princess saves herself!” “The kiss does not wake the sleeper.” “The dragon is actually friendly.”
An easy example of this, if a rather too heavy-handed one, is found in the movie Frozen. The young princess “falls in love” with a stereotypical love-interest over the course of one single rather obnoxious song. (I am not a huge fan of Frozen, sorry). In the end it is not this “love interest” OR the second love interest whose kiss saves the day, but that of her sister. Disney lampshades the insta-love story, then subverts the only-her-one-true-love-can-save-her trope. All well and good.
I use this example because it is pretty over the top and as such is a pretty stark example both of a subversion and the following truth: subverting a trope doesn’t inherently equal a good story. It can, of course. But so can using a standard trope. Subversion does not indicate quality. It is, in and of itself, perfectly neutral.
Now I know a lot of people love Frozen, and that’s fine. One of my nieces has spent many a day dressed up as Elsa. I don’t think the story’s bad, and the fact that one sister saves the other with love is actually quite sweet. I’m fine with that. But when the main (and, in some other cases, only) praise of a story is the fact that it subverted a trope, we must realize that we have in fact said not one word about the quality or truth or richness or depth of the story. We have merely stated the equivalent of “this story has a tree in it.” It’s nice if you like trees, but its not very informative as to whether those trees are effectively or meaningfully integrated into the story.
That being said, I understand why someone might pitch a story as a subversion, not as an indicator of quality, but as a warning that ‘this isn’t going to go the way you think.’ “500 Days of Summer” did this well. The movie tells you explicitly that this story isn’t going to end in romantic bliss. They’re not going to work it all out in a sweeping romantic gesture during the last 10 minutes of the movie. Side note, I don’t really like that movie at all. I don’t really like the premise of spending an hour and a half investing in two people, only for the whole purpose of the story to be “and then they went their separate ways, no harm, no foul.”
Maybe it spoke deeply to someone else about experiences they had, about moving on or something, but it seemed rather soulless to me, and I would never watch it again of my own free will.
The truth is, a subverted trope usually leads to a known trope whether you want it to or not. Contrary to what some may think, tropes do not exist because of narrative laziness (though they can surely be executed with it, same as anything), but because of resonance. A certain trope strikes a note that pings back from your soul with deepened sound, resonating with something that was already present, enriching some soil that was already there. We can learn new things from old tropes, again and again.
Robin McKinley wrote The Blue Sword because of some book she read where a woman was capture by the “Natives” and there was a sort of “captor-captive” romance happening, and then the captor-guy turned out to be from the woman’s same nationality (“non-native”) anyway. She was very disgusted with the whole thing. The way this  trope of the well-bred lady being capture by locals and then romanced was executed was appalling because it was done so badly, with such little reason and (I suspect) so little respect, knowledge, or desire to challenge assumptions.
So she decided to write a book where all of that was essentially reversed. The locals are the heroes rather than the antagonists, and the psuedo-British-Colonial lady that gets captured by them? Well it turns out that she’s one of them, though she didn’t know that it was her heritage. From there it becomes a classic adventure story with some romance lightly sprinkled in. Now I love this book, but I can still admit it’s not perfect, and she still fell into some of the traps she was explicitly trying to avoid (It’s not technically a white savior narrative, because Harry’s Grandmother was Damarian, but it’s still tends a bit that way). But, for the most part, she took the good of the trope–the idea of being brought into a world you do not know against your will, and being forced to learn, adapt, and to respect that which is very different from what you’re used to, of being humbled by others and by circumstances, and of finding a home where you did not expect to find it–and sloughed off much of the bad.
And she ended up writing a very classical story of a heroic chosen one who had magic she never knew about.
Tropes are like flavors. Our tongues are ready made with certain taste-buds, like little pockets ready to receive specific tastes. We all have different palettes, no doubt, and experimentation with flavors is a wonderful thing. But at the end of the day, most people have a space on their tongues for “salty” and “tangy” and “sweet” and the like. And when that salt hits your tongue, you revel in it, because it was just what you wanted. And it doesn’t matter that it has thrilled a million tongues before, and will do so a million times again. It satisfies.
So, I guess, all I’m saying is, you may need to gargle vinegar once in a while for your health, or chew a piece of pickled ginger to refresh your palette, and you may be a straight up foodie (hear, hear!) and want to try all manner of strange concoctions–but that’s no reason to look down on the fact that sometimes our tongues simply crave salt, sweet, and sour, and we never really move on from those, while so many other fun experiments may be enjoyed, but quickly forgotten.

 

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The Everlasting Trope: The “Crew”

Ah, the “Crew.” Think The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. Or Firefly. Ocean’s 11. Take your pick. I know there are a few more recent fantasy-type novels which feature this trope. The rag-tag band. A motley crew. A found family of misfits. So on and so forth.
This trope is very hit-or-miss for me and I think this stands to reason: you either like the crew…or you don’t. Since this trope deals heavily in multiple character dynamics, it requires a certain finesse to pull off. Because you’re usually dealing with a bigger roster of main characters, there’s that many more ways it can go wrong.
When it doesn’t Work
-This one’s pretty obvious. If all you have are underdeveloped characters, the whole thing will fall flat, no matter how awesome the heist (’cause it is usually a heist). This most commonly manifests as the “one-trait folly.” Each character is provided with one defining trait–“the mean one,” “the quiet one,” “the one who is in love with his weapon”–and we get constant call-backs to that one thing, but NOTHING ELSE. It starts to feel like everyone should just be wearing a name-tag with that one trait on it. Rarely does a book or a movie go quite that flat in characterization, but if you have to remind yourself who’s who when the action is flurrying, something got missed.
-when half the “crew” seems tacked-on. This is when there are 3 or 4 characters the author actually cares about, but that hardly constitutes a full crew, so they throw in another 4 or 5…but they just feel like excess baggage. All their banter feels awkward and forced, and they constantly have to pop their head in just to remind us that they’re there. Maybe this “excess” person is technically the best codebreaker…but for some reason it’s always one of the 3 or 4 main protagonists that end up doing everything anyway, leaving extra guy with nothing to do but nod as his expertise is made irrelevant.
-When a central romance dominates to the point that it creates unnatural character dynamics. Everything is reorganized, shoved, blunted, shifted for the romance. Unless it is literally a Romance novel (and sometimes even then!) this can ruin a thing. This is not an indictment against romance itself, mind you.
Simply take the example of some Classic Romantic Comedies (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, The Philadelphia Story) and then attempt to find a truly enduring Romantic Comedy from the last 10 years. Not too many, right? I have tried to analyze this phenomenon of the lack of really high quality Romantic Comedies in recent years, and I have identified two or three factors, one of which is side characters. The side characters in the older movies were really vivid. They were present, involved, hilarious, and enriching. They had their own insights and ideas. They existed not only to prove that the world consisted of more than these two central people, but that real relationships outside the romance itself matter and are a vital part of life.
If the whole structure of the crew is built awkwardly and inexplicably around a central romance, it ruins the family-feeling of the crew, demotes the remaining characters to window-dressing, and makes the romance itself boring because it’s all one channel, all the time.
-Too many Han Solos. Han Solo is awesome. I love Han Solo. But not everybody can be Han Solo. We need diversity of personality. This is a subtle temptation, because crews are usually doing capers or heists or whatever, and that usually implies roguish personalities. But if EVERYBODY is Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, it’s boring.
Truth told, I haven’t actually seen this particular flaw very much. We recognize pretty quick that a crew begs diversity of personality.
And on that note:
When it Does Work/Why We Love It
-Diversity of personality. The wide range of interesting characters gives everyone someone to identify with–at least to some degree–or root for. Well done, the crew story offers a dazzling feast of characters and we get to watch them grow, act, and develop right before our eyes.
-Surface simplification, with hidden depths. This acts as a counter to the one-trait problem. Yes, at first, we have “The mean one,” “The weapons expert,” “The scholar,” and “The one we know nothing about.” We basically get character cards to start, and then we slowly get to discover what they are outside their area of expertise. Nuance unfolds. Every new tidbit about their background or personality becomes a delicious morsel.
-Character dynamics. The way those two banter, the way he acts like a brother to her, the way she holds back around him, the way he plays it close to the chest with that other guy, almost as if he doesn’t trust him. Once we are invested, every single drop of dialogue from our favorite characters becomes a thrill. Subtle nods make us feel welcomed into the found family, and silences speak loudly. If the character dynamics are good, we don’t even care what the heist is! It’s just a medium for interaction between people we have come to love.
-HOWEVER, there usually is a fun objective, heist, goal, whatever. And we like that too, because we like to see everything come together, everyone’s strengths utilized, and the close bond they have compensates for their individual weaknesses.
-Sometimes the crew has been together for a long time, sometimes they are brought together before our eyes. It can be really enjoyable to watch the transition from “I’m just in it for the money” to “You are my brother and I will die for you!” I see this one done badly a lot. One minute the crew was gathered and everyone was passing out name tags along with areas of expertise, and after a mild run-in with a low level goon, somebody says “we’re a family now.”
If you don’t show your work, that isn’t going to fly.
On the other hand, if the crew has been together for a long time, it can be a joy to catch subtle hints of past experiences, of all the little things we don’t yet know about what brought them together.
In Conclusion:
The “Crew” trope feeds our love for variety, for family, for adventure, for a shared goal. It stokes a desire for intimate friendships where, at a word or a glance, one knows exactly what is going on in the others’ head, or exactly what to do, where to go, how to execute. We love to see everything (or, more importantly, everyone) come together just so. And since “Crew” stories nearly always have heists, they are often just plain fun. Puzzleboxes made of people for us to try and figure out.

To-Read 2018

This is not a comprehensive list, but just a smattering of the things I am going to try to prioritize this year:
Middlemarch, George Eliot: Last year’s “Big Book” was The Brothers Karamazov. This year I will endeavor to make it through this behemoth. I know precious little about it, other than that the author used a pen name because she wanted her work to be taken seriously, and it is something of a character study. It was written in the 1860s, but set in the 1830s.
Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: A classic I have never read, yet I keep hearing that it speaks with great relevance to our present time. Published in the 1830’s by a Frenchmen seeking to understand the nature of politics and Democracy in the United States.
Iraq in Turmoil: Historical Perspectives of Dr. Ali Al-Wardi from the Ottoman Empire to King Feisal: A collection of writings by a famous Iraqi historian edited by Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein and compiled with respect to relevance in current-day Iraq.
Some Wendell Berry (Per a friend’s suggestion): I have a book of his collected poems. I have never read anything by him, but jus sampling a few random poems has convinced me to give him a try.
Horse Soldiers, Dough Stanton: This was suggested this to me quite a while ago, and I just found out that this story of SF soldiers in Afghanistan is being made into a movie. As the title suggests, they used horses due to the nature of the terrain in Afghanistan. This book accounts for several of their encounters with the Taliban, and their campaign in the Mazar-i-Sharif area.
Cities of Salt, Abdel Rahman Munif: About what happens when oil is discovered in a fictitious Middle-Eastern country, and–as I understand it–a takedown of both Western and Arab ways of handling such a situation. Let’s put it this way, this book is banned in Saudi Arabia, the country which is the target of its critique. This is a modern Arabic Classic that I would frankly rather read in Arabic, but I have a copy in English and…well…I am a slow reader in Arabic, and I already started a different novel in Arabic and will be very satisfied to make it through that one. Speaking of which:
الفتنة, كنعان مكية (In English: The Rope, Kanan Makiya): I’m 30 or so pages into this one, but I am a slow reader in Arabic, so I’m expecting it will take me a while. The book begins with the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, but covers both the brutality of life under Saddam, as well as the turmoil of the recent Iraq war. Set primarily between 2003 and 2006, as I understand.
Paradise Lost, John Milton: I read the other day that Milton was blind (I did not know that) and dictated Paradise Lost. The nature of such genius astounded me (he had all that meter and all that poetry FORMED IN HIS MIND). I mentioned this out loud to my sister and she suggested we both tackle it this year. Here we go!
So those are a few of the things I hope to read this year, but there are many others, and if I’m making good progress, I’ll update on my to-read plans throughout the year! Merry reading!

 

 

2017 in Books

This year ended up being one of excitingly diverse reading: almost every genre! Books written hundreds of years apart! It looks almost erratic as I examine my goodreads, but I enjoyed the vast majority of what I read, and [it seems] made my goal. It was a very moderate goal, but I have two kids under the age of three, so I’m calling it good.
(Forgive if the genre categorization is a bit off. It’s not my strength)
Without further ado, the books of 2017
Sci-fi/Fantasy
Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin: Technically an alternate history/dystopia in which Germany won, and a Holocaust survivor can alter her physical appearance at will as a result of experimentation. She enters a motorcycle race for a chance to kill Hitler. I liked it okay, but note that it is lighter fare, despite the heavy subject matter.
The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner: Um…it was okay for me. Lost me towards the end and I had to fight not to skim. I don’t read a lot of mid-grade, and I found the world-building lovely, but the general tone of the story dull. I was surprised, as it is much beloved by many.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: Classic dystopian novel. Really enjoyed it in the sense that “wow this is horrifying and accurate to trends in our society.” Immediate satisfaction of all desires, shallow discourse, extreme fear of intellectual complexity or diversity. Sex as simultaneously horribly degraded and elevated as a deity. Likewise replacing religion with “society” and sensation as god. There were some things I disliked, namely the weird, shallow, and frankly confusing portrayal of Native Americans. Otherwise, excellent.
Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis: A re-read. Excellent philosophy-and-theology-laden Sci-fi. Read it out loud to my husband, and he liked it too.
Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis: Another re-read, and an even more powerfully theological Sci-Fi book. Also, my favorite world ever built. I long to go to Perelandra as Lewis writes it.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik: A lovely, atmospheric fantasy, about a corrupting evil forest, and those who fight it. A story full of striking metaphors…though slightly marred by a needless and uniquely unromantic sex scene. Enjoyable enough that I will be reading Novik’s upcoming Spinning Silver, though, an unrelated but similarly styled fairy-tale fantasy.
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan: A more formal, Victorian-England-flavored fantasy featuring the memoir of a young aristocratic woman who develops a scientific interest in Dragons, and who later becomes a famous dragon naturalist. I liked it a reasonable amount. I plan to read the next.
Literary or Contemporary
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: this book was very well written, but I strongly disliked it. I expound a bit on why here.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: A calm, rich narrative of an elderly pastor knowing he will die soon, who wants to pass wisdom on to his son. Lovely, lovely, lovely. In the top two of the year.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: About immigration experiences, and non-American black experiences (specifically Nigerian). I found this book well-written, very interesting, and I am glad I read it, but I can’t quite say I liked it because both the protagonists…well, they troubled me deeply, not just due to ALL THE INFIDELITY, but also their utter indifference to its wrongness and effects (particularly Ifemelu’s indifference, though Obinze was no angel). So, lots of intriguing insights, and moments creating intense empathy, but morally just…awful. Any book that excuses infidelity within the narrative by either One True Love philosophy, or mere ennui, cannot get my recommendation, no matter how it might have otherwise deserved it.
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone: A novel about a boy who is racially profiled and mistreated by a cop, and tries to deal with his experiences of racism through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy. While that framework is not as deeply utilized as I would have liked, I think this book does a good job of examining contemporary race issues through one young man’s personal experience.
Non-fiction/History
The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: A narrative non-fiction about one Afghani family. Written by a journalist who lived with that family for a time. Very informative and generally well-written, but often infuriating…one gets the sense of the author’s condescension and contempt from time to time, and it mars the reader’s intimacy and empathy.
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson: Narrative non-fiction about the US Ambassador to Germany–himself an unlikely candidate for the position–covering the year 1933-1934. Very informative about US and German attitudes at the time. I know far more than I would like about his daughter’s love life, but was still a very good read.
Republic of Fear, by Kanan Makiya: About the Ba’ath party’s rise, consolidation of power, and methods of control and intimidation. Excellent. A slower, more academic read, but well worth it. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern Iraqi history.
Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon, edited by Tamar Morad, Dennis Shasha, and Robert Shasha: A collection of oral histories documenting the persecution and flight of the 2500 year old Jewish community of Iraq. Devastating to read, seeing such an ancient and rich community utterly uprooted in a scant handful of decades.
Historical Fiction
The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer: About a Jewish man’s sojourn as a slave in a 17th century Polish village, his relationship with a gentile woman, and his wrestling with his faith under circumstances of great sorrow and duress. Full of Jewish and Polish history and mythology. Recommended.
Old Men at Midnight, by Chaim Potok: Three stories relating to Jewish history, linked only by a woman named Davita, who herself is given scant and erratic characterization. The stories are very powerful, although the third one dips slightly into a different genre than the other two, and leaves some confusion. Regardless, I still recommend it, especially for The War Doctor section, and the scene about the boy preparing the reading passage for his Bar Mitzvah
The Promise, by Chaim Potok: The Promise is the follow-up to Potok’s more famous The Chosen, and while I like The Chosen, The Promise was one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It deals quietly with the collective trauma of the Holocaust and questions how to see the future of Judaism (I wrote a tiny bit about it here). I had to set the book down occasionally just to breathe and process. A painful, beautiful book.
Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw: An ancient Egyptian drama I first read when I was about twelve or thirteen. It is suited to that age, but I love it still. More details in this review.
Memoir
A Long Way Gone, by Ishamel Beah: a memoir of a child soldier from Sierra Leone. Depressing to read, but needful to hear.
Saddam’s Secrets, by Georges Sada: An Assyrian Iraqi General’s account of his years serving under Saddam Hussein. He has a very plain, personable, chatting-over-coffee way of writing and while not much of what he writes is unknown information, it is still a worthwhile read for one man’s perspective and experience of living in a very precarious position.
Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis: A re-read. One of my all time favorite books, and a great companion to Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress. An account of Lewis’ spiritual and intellectual journey up to the point of his conversion to Christianity.
Refusenik, by Mark Ya Azbel: Excellent memoir of a Jewish scientist in the Soviet Union who applied to immigrate to Israel but for many years was refused (hence refusenik), giving a thorough account of the prejudices and stifled intellectual atmosphere of even the “freer” times in the USSR, of anti-semitism cloaked as “anti-zionism,” of incredible endurance and moral fortitude. Definitely recommended.
 Essays/Theology
Eugenics and Other Evils, by GK Chesterton: I have discovered that I love Chesterton’s essays and such far more than any of his fiction. It is easy to discuss Eugenics as evil now that we have seen where it can lead (the Nazis were big fans and, incidentally, some modern European nations have implemented certain fundamental Nazi goals with a quiet fervor) but Chesterton–who certainly has his flaws–was ahead of his time in this. He saw the terrible danger of a government and society that could collectively decide whose life was worth living without their own input.
Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, by C.S. Lewis: Does what is says on the tin and, since it’s Lewis, does it well. More questions than answers, though, which is atypical.
On Stories, by C.S. Lewis: Lovely collection of essays on writing, youth fiction, SFF, and literature in general. Wrote a bit about it here.
Heretics, by GK Chesterton: A re-read. Essays critiquing the philosophies of various authors, thinkers, and public figures. Mostly Chesterton’s contemporaries. Excellent.
Classics
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: My first Great Russian Novel. It was daunting, and took a while to get through, but I am glad I read it. I don’t actually like Dostoyevsky’s writing style, which is tedious and rambling, but not at all beautiful. It is his explorations of human nature and folly and his intertwining of theological struggles that draw readers to him, not his prose, I imagine. (Perhaps the former’s a matter of translation?). I’ve heard tell it’s better to start with Crime and Punishment, which shall be my next.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen: A re-read of my favorite Austen. It is still good, in case you’re wondering. It is the most mature romance, and has excellent tension, and is an ode to the constant and long-suffering character.
My Antonia, by Willa Cather: Beautiful, atmospheric prose, really offering a visceral feel of Nebraska prairie life. Somewhat an account of immigrant experience as well. I liked it well enough to recommend it, though it’s not topping my lists. A few really gorgeous, moving scenes make it quite worth it.
Conclusions
30 books total (not a lot, but I feel pretty good about it!) 6 of this year’s books were re-reads, which I count an accomplishment. One of the hallmarks of a good book is that it’s one you want to read again, so I do not want to neglect those. I read books that came out this year, and books that were published a hundred or two hundred years ago. I read books that were “not my thing” and books that were my old, cozy stand-bys. I read books about contemporary issues, and books about historical issues that felt quite relevant to the present. I feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity to read all these books! A good book year, to be sure.

The Everlasting Trope: The Love Triangle

For these Everlasting Trope posts, I try not to pick only tropes I like, or only ones I dislike, but a whole range of them. Yet I think it is necessary to admit, up front, my own biases.
I do not particularly care for the Love Triangle. I don’t hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, but I would never voluntarily seek it out, and I am very skeptical of it when I see it arise.
But this trope has a zillion versions, and it never dies. Shakespeare did all kinds of triangles and rectangles and basically all of the love geometry. There is nothing new under the sun.
As always, why is this?
And as always, the answer is…there are several answers, a few of which I will attempt to tackle fairly.
Creating Tension/Barriers
In any Romantic scenario, barriers are thrown up to keep the romance from coming to fruition because readers generally prefer tension to satisfaction. We like the ‘almost’ or the fraught uncertainty leading to the plot climax rather than the pragmatic housekeeping that is the denouement.
Almost anything can be a barrier–class, culture, war, distance, group dynamics, religion–but when such things are not germane to the story or setting, a second suitor can do the trick. This can be true whether the extra love-interest is merely a distraction (no one actually believes he is THE guy for the protagonist) or if he is indeed a viable contender.
And sometimes the ‘other’ guy, ends up being the actual guy, and that creates all kinds of tensions, confusions, and wonderings. The presence of doubt or impediment that the extra suitor provides prolongs the central romance, drawing it out as we (for some reason) so often love it to do.
(Side-note: Personally I am not a fan of the triangle-for-tension bit, and I’ve never really understood the appeal, but perhaps that is because the idea of being interested in two people at one time, or torn between them, seems simultaneously impossible and truly awful. I end up disliking the lady-love (as, let’s be honest, it is usually a lady) and wondering why anyone would be drawn to someone so flighty, indecisive, and who shows a tendency for infidelity)
Wish-fulfillment
Sometimes this is all it is. The bald-faced wish-fulfillment of having every remotely intriguing character fall for the main protagonist. The competition. Everyone fighting for you…uh, I mean her…because she’s just SO amazing. On the surface it might be easy to mock this sort of thing, unless you take the word “beautiful” and replace it with “smart.”
Have I ever wished every man in the room was in love with me? No. Definitely not. But have I wished that everyone in the room was impressed with me, thought me astonishingly intelligent, the absolute best sort of company? Why yes. Yes I have. I admit this shamefacedly, but the truth is most of us like the idea of someone turning their head in abrupt amazement at our dazzling brilliance, and it’s not hard to see how that concept might take a strong romantic turn when infused into a story.
Take this scenario a little further, it becomes a triangle or some other shape. Such is life.
Plot-Passion-Push
For simplicity’s sake, let us continue to use the most stereotypical scenario: the extra suitor gives main-love-interest guy a much-needed push to realize his own feelings about Lady-love. It isn’t until his status is threatened that he becomes aware of his status at all. Extra-suitor-guy is there to awaken main-love-interest-guy’s hidden passion for lady-love. He didn’t know what he wanted until he realized he was going to lose it.
This one can actually be really fun and romantic, because it often has one of the protagonists wrestling with feelings they do NOT want to confront, but are forced to address because of competition. Inner turmoil. Angst. Woe. Hope. Doubt. A sudden painful awareness of all the beloveds’ finer qualities, which were heretofore taken for granted.
More than this it give us an opportunity the witness the depth of one character’s love for the other. When provoked by danger (that being the danger of losing the Beloved to someone else) the lover is suddenly afforded many opportunities of long-suffering sorrow, forbearance, and self-sacrifice (because if the Beloved would be happier with Other Guy, then that is what must happen, however painful!) which just goes to show how True Is His Love.
We love to see self-sacrifice and silent struggle! Let it be!
A Moral Choice
This is a device that need not be used only for love triangles, but often is used thusly. This is where two characters represent not only themselves, but a philosophy or a moral direction. A really good non love triangle example of this device is to be found in Chaim Potok’s The Promise. Abraham Gordon and Rav Kalman are fully realized characters but they also represent two different responses from the Jewish community to the collective trauma of the Holocaust, two different plans and ideologies for the future of Judaism. And it is young Michael who represents the pain and confusion caused by the conflict between these philosophies. (Unrelated: The Promise is highly, highly recommended).
In love triangles, the two competing love interests may be fully realized, or they may be two-dimensional, but they clearly represent two different “tracks” the protagonist can take. This is why there is often a “bad boy” and a “nice guy” in many of these stories. Broadly, that’s an almost Star-Warsian battle between the light side and the dark side, but some stories go much deeper than this. The two love interests may represent a battle between cynicism and hope, between the rejection or embrace of society, between maturity and immaturity, between faith or doubt, between reason and emotion, between pride or humility. Sometimes the right answer is clear. Sometimes it is more ambiguous because both sides are making some pretty compelling arguments.
Hunger Games was not really my thing, but it has a tolerable (if imperfectly applied) example of this. Gale represented resistance via aggression. Peeta (at times) represented resistance via gentleness and sacrifice. The question was which one offered an end to the cycle, which one offered peace. There were some severe contrivances and deviations from the metaphor, but each guy represented more than just his character as such.
Done well, this one can thrill the philosophical/theological part of the mind, and maybe even the romantic sensibilities as well. Tough to get it right, though. One wants the characters to be real people, not just symbols.
Human Complexity and Human Inconstancy
Many love triangles are doomed altogether, and it ends badly for everybody, not just the unwanted extra suitor. These are the stories where the “triangle” exists to examine the complex desires and struggles within human nature itself. We are broken, confused, imperfect, often working against our own best interests.
People who have been mistreated or abused often have trouble escaping cycles of abusive relationships so as to break out and seek healthy ones because some patterns are very sticky…they pull you back.
We want to do right, but we do not.
In other circumstances, our selfishness gets in the way and convinces us (ever so slyly) that what we want is more important than, say, wisdom or fidelity or keeping vows.
And in still other circumstances, mere immaturity may lead to confusion in love and relationships.
In Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, Maid Marian has already fallen in love with Robin, but she is somewhat young and naive, and when she encounters Ralf (The Sheriff) she is somewhat moved by his tortured soul. The author says that she had learned the “primary colors of love but not yet it’s delicate shades.” She must learn constancy while also having compassion for the anti-hero of the book.
But probably the best example off the top of my head for this sort of love triangle is in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. There we have a father and son bitterly jealous over the same woman who herself is astonishingly flawed and confused, and two brothers in a sort of mind-boggling battle of wills over the honor or dishonor of another woman. The woman herself is torn between pride and love. Nobody is happy. Nothing really works out. Much of it is unresolved. Everyone’s a mess. They have moments of fancying themselves noble, or feeling noble, feeling the nobility of love, but hardly any of them ever act lovingly. Speeches are made. Bowings and scrapings here and there. Fools all.*
And so, often, are we. Everyone is angry. Everyone is convinced that they’re right, right up until the moment that they briefly know themselves to be horrible, then we go right back to defending our folly. We feel noble, and think ourselves noble, but our actions often tell a different story. We hurt those we say we love. We destroy ourselves with selfish actions.
The romances in such stories are not often very romantic. They are there to expose our human frailty, and to do so ruthlessly.
*(Except Alyosha, but that’s kinda the point.)
An Unexpected Conclusion
I do not think of myself as loving this trope, but having written this, I think it is a far richer mine than ever I realized. Yes, it is often used in a shallow manner, as a tool to shower the protagonist with inexplicable ardor from the thousand and one suitors who love her beyond reason, or to create tension that was otherwise absent.
But there’s a lot to be had here. More than I would have expected. Lesson learned.

 

Poetry Tripping up Prose

So it is a common thing to hear reviewers and book-lovers complain about ‘purple prose.’ Like most complaints, however, this is shorthand for something more complicated. At times we like highly poetic prose, even relish it. What most people mean when they say ‘purple prose’ isn’t simply “elegant or florid” but rather “overly-dramatic or painfully excessive.”
And what makes it ‘excessive’? On the face of it, of course, it’s usually a matter of subjective taste. So we have to grant the subjectivity of it, and go from there in order to try and understand why we sometimes love poetry in our prose and sometimes loathe it.
(This applies to the opposite style as well: sometimes we love a stark, stripped sentence. Other times it makes us want to slap someone…so, extrapolate)
Is It Any Good?
The first and most obvious hurdle that must be passed is whether or not the writing is just plain bad: cliche-riddled, weak, repetitive, and amateurish. I am referring to something that nearly everyone could point to as an example of bad writing, objectively. The craft has not been honed, effort has not been made. In the midst of such writing, purple prose will stand out garishly. It is gaudy there, because it is thoughtless, incoherent adornment.
But let’s be honest, it’s not just bad writing that high-lights overwrought prose. This can happen in decent writing too. Even in excellent writing, and it is this that I want to analyze.
Usually when describing books I dislike, I avoid mentioning titles or authors. I’m not here to mock or deride. But in this case I am going to have to name names. If a book you love is torn apart here, I’m sorry, but it’s too good purpose, I promise!
(Theoretically) Good Prose, Terrible Story
Some people that I both love and respect, and who have excellent taste in literature recommended this book to me, which I ended up loathing. I say this so that you might take everything I’m about to say about the book Beatrice and Virgil with a grain of salt. I hated it. People of indisputably good taste and character loved it. Make of that what you will.
I started reading Beatrice and Virgil, a literary novel that is a supposed attempt to write about the Holocaust in the abstract, or obliquely, or metaphorically or whatever. The writing drew me in, and for a good while I was wondering with deep curiosity what it all meant, where it was all headed. The writing is full of rich, detailed descriptions and metaphors. But, as far as I’m concerned, the book was utterly soulless. Beautifully written, and empty, empty, empty. A gilded, barren vessel, writing about a grave topic in a haphazard, pseudo-deep, fiercely pointless way. And unless the metaphor was supposed to be “pointlessness and emptiness,” I think the book completely failed, in spite of excellent writing.
It made me hate the elegant metaphors all the more because they, so to speak, fell to the ground without accomplishing any sort of purpose. This book feels to me like the author had a interesting, (albeit extremely pretentious and aloof) premise, plus a notebook full of cool, but utterly irrelevant and detached metaphors that he wanted to cram in there. And that’s it. That’s the whole kit and caboodle.
None of the beautiful phrases are preserved in my mind because they had (or seemed to have) no real substance beneath them. I think the very quality of the writing made my disappointment far more severe. I’ve read poorly written books that handled topics ineffectively, but there was not the sense of injury after reading those, as though something important had been ill-used by hands that clearly had the capacity to do much better.
The only other book that made me feel this livid–this deep sense of a failure of the narrative, a insulting usage of the subject matter, and a frustrating use of metaphor and poetry–was The Book Thief. Once again, many intelligent people I love and respect liked this book a great deal. Keep salting as we go along, because the subjective and objective can be tricky to disentangle with books like this.
Much like with Beatrice and Virgil, I was struck with the beauty and strength of the prose in the first few pages. “Sky like burned soup,” Death says. That stuck with me. But as the book wore on (and I do say wore on…weary irritation and frustration is the chief emotion I associate with this book), the blankness, meanness, and emptiness of most of the characters, and of the story as a whole, caused those very same strengths–the prose–to collapse before my eyes. The good, misapplied, turned very, very sour.
Soon every single metaphor stood out like a sore thumb–irrational and sometimes eye-gougingly stupid. It was as if, half-way through the book, the author tried to stick in every last weird phrase he really ought to have reserved for a book that actually needed them. This one did not. Unlike with Beatrice and Virgil, which I disliked for what I saw as it’s horrible misuse of a grave topic, but which was well-written from beginning to end, I started to loathe the prose in The Book Thief to the point where reading it was like nails on a chalkboard. It was with fierce and stubborn grit that I managed to finish it at all.
These are the only two books I have ever read that made me feel a visceral anger in this way. The fact that they are both (the former however loosely) associated with WWII/Holocaust may have much to do with it. I felt personally insulted (???) by the way the authors approached the topic. I fully acknowledge this opinion to be VERY subjective, but it seemed to me that the authors cared more about their style of prose than they did about the very serious, very important historical subject matter. I’m sure that can’t be true, but never have I read a WWII or Holocaust narrative that made me feel so disconnected from the subject matter, as if the topic was totally incidental to the author. A mere decoration they felt added the desired gravitas.
Again, it seems nearly impossible that this is actually so, but the conclusion I draw from this is that if someone is knowledgeable, or feels particularly strongly about a topic/era/subject then a disrespectful or inept–or even simply unusual!–handling of it is going to cast an ugly shadow on the prose for them. The prose is too high above the theme, and given more thought than the theme. It should be stricken and reversed, as one evil chocolatier might say.
All I have said of these particular stories may be quite subjective, but from my own reaction I can learn some principles to more broadly apply: Poetry, I think, is ruined if the treatment of the subject and the beauty of the words do not match. You might notice this in a song you like: the music and the pounding rhythm of the words are awesome…but then the more you think about the words, the more you realize how stupid and shallow they actually are. It can blunt even that which was rightly sharp.
Poetry Steals the Spotlight, for Good or Ill
On the other end of the spectrum, I have one example of a book with a theme and purpose that I thought was quite excellent, quite worthy, but the excessively florid style grated so much that I couldn’t finish it. The book is call One Thousand Gifts. It is about gratitude and what the author has to say is, I believe, utterly true and necessary to hear. But she had a very particular swirliness to her prose which I believe many people would connect to, but which drove me up the wall.
To me, it was intrusive and often eye-roll inducing, and even though I kept thinking “what she is saying, underneath all that erratic decoration, is fully true…but how long can I put up with this?”
This is the prose equivalent of adding so many curlicues to your calligraphy that the word can no longer be read. It may be beautiful (to some) but it is increasingly illegible to most. Purple is not a problem. But it becomes one if we begin to have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. If you have to scale a mountain of metaphors to get to the heart of the paragraph’s matter, it can become very tedious.
Obviously this is a matter of taste. We have different likes, dislikes, different thresholds for pretty versus practical. But for my own edification, it reminds me that my prose may be as purple (or gray, or black-and-white) as it pleases, provide it doesn’t tangle the readers ankles and blur their vision as they go along. It’s something for me to keep in mind, as I (obviously) tend toward the wordier end of the spectrum.
So when we say excessive, we usually mean “it got in the way.” Prose and purpose were mismatched.
The Balance
Since I have spent the last several paragraphs criticizing that which doesn’t work, I’m going to offer a few examples of that which does.
(Side-note: For fans of Beatrice and Virgil, The Book Thief, and One Thousand Gifts, I ask your pardon for all the above. I tried to be fair. Grains of salt for everybody!)
Two books that strike the balance of having rich purpose and theme, a beautiful, truly muscular use of both, and which are seamlessly poetic are: Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis, and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. That I only have two examples shows that I am rarely satisfied, perhaps more of a mark against me than against any other authors I decry.
While reading these books I felt that there was not a single errant word. All was balanced so perfectly between fact and metaphor, between soft lilt and sharp edge. The themes were so strong and resonant and the prose matched them perfectly. It is this to which I aspire, and this which seems impossible to achieve. Reading books like this is like basking in sunlight, yet never growing too hot because of a perfectly cool breeze. It is rare, and cherished.
Side-note: There are other books that I found equally powerful, but they were simply less poetic in style (Chaim Potok’s The Promise is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, but the prose style is far more pragmatic, so I did not include it). I chose these two because they have precisely that right use of subtle, incisive poetry and in that usage, such strength.
I remember phrases from these books, and when I recall them, they stir in me a similar joy or sorrow as they did at first. Like a balm or a right grieving. And I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

Everlasting Trope: Dash or Die

I don’t know what the real name of this trope is, but it generally works like this: there’s a ticking clock of some lethal kind and the character has to run–and I mean RUN–to make it in time.
Run to slam a gate to keep the monster out.
Race to deliver a letter before a dreadful misunderstanding occurs.
Hurry to get out of the city before curfew lockdown.
Sprinting through field and forrest with the hounds baying just behind you.
You get the idea.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty straightforward trope, and I suppose it is, but since I find that I actually use and think about this trope in my daily life, I think it’s worth exploring.
Where do we see this trope? Why does it exist? Why is it that we don’t get bored of such an obvious and common narrative tool?
For Instance
Off the top of my head I can think of two examples of this trope that impacted me, and I’m going to use them for the analysis.
The first is Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta’s companion, Aravis, has been wounded by a lion and must recover. Both talking horses, Bree and Hwin, are completely spent and must rest. But Shasta doesn’t get to rest. He has to keep going to warn of invasion. He can only just hope to precede the attackers by a very little bit, if at all. He has to run as fast as he can (remember, he’s already exhausted) in hopes that word can reach Archenland in time. If he doesn’t make it, Archenland won’t make it. If he does, they have a chance.
Thankfully, Shasta makes it.
The second example is of a far more serious nature, as it is based in actual history. It is the movie Gallipoli. In the film there are two extremely fast runners who enlist and fight in WWI. Towards the end of the film there is an assault planned by the ANZAC forces, meant to follow bombardment and proceed in three waves. The timing is bungled, and the first two waves are slaughtered almost instantly. There is some disagreement and miscommunication as to whether or not the third wave should proceed (it being quite clear to the viewer that they will be slaughtered just like the first two waves).
With disconnected phone lines, one of the runners is given a message to halt the third wave. He sprints. His friend–the other sprinter–is in the third wave. If the runner makes it, all those men are saved. If he doesn’t, they aren’t.
The runner doesn’t make it. The wave is sent to death.
Creating Tension
Here’s the most obvious reason for the dash or die trope. Well done, a ticking clock creates tremendous tension. I honestly have never figured out what the difference is between the well-done ones and the poorly done ones. I only recognize the difference in what I think and feel.
When poorly done, the ticking clock feels silly and forced. I don’t really believe that anyone is in danger, and I don’t feel the fear and desperation of the runner. To me this indicates that the author didn’t enter into that tension, didn’t really put lives at stake, but simply overlaid it onto the scene because they wanted more tension and didn’t really know how else to go about it. I suspect this, because I can always tell when I am trying to “add tension” to my scenes but don’t personally feel it…it ends up being very paint-by-the-numbers. The stakes could be the fate of the world, and nobody will care.
When well done, the stakes could be relatively low (a mild misunderstanding) but my heart will still race. I wish I knew the trick to this, because it astounds me, and impresses me when well executed.
Value of Fierce Incentive
For the runner themselves, the incentive is razor-sharp. It’s dragging them like ropes, even against the will of their body. When dealing with motive, characters are often given a wide variety and it’s just a matter of context and timing as to which of those motives end up having the most driving power for action. It’s complex. Motives conflict, and muddy the waters, which can be interesting, but can also muddy our understanding of why a character is doing something, or why it’s important.
Not here. We know exactly what’s at stake, and we know when it needs to happen, and we know why the protagonist is so desperate, why they are able to push past their normal physical limits. Everything is on the table. The incentive to run is visceral, adrenaline-soaked, acting like a raw scream in the ear.
Weight and Finality
This trope works best when the success or failure carries dreadful weight, and its impact is final.
When the consequences of failure are tempered–“oh, you’re too late, but some coincidence caused a deferred consequence, how lucky!! Now you get to try again”–that definitely obliterates the tension and value of a ticking clock.
Finality matters in the story because it matters in real life. Sometimes our decisions, or our failures are final. Not always, but sometimes. That’s why people love to watch doctor shows: the decisions of the doctors are often final, and often on the clock.
It’s a grander, more dangerous version of what we feel when we try to meet a non-negotiable deadline. When that happens, it can make our heart race. No less so in fiction.
As to impressing the weight of the thing on the reader (or viewer), the main factor that I’ve noticed is not whether the consequences are large or small, but whether we care about the effects in a personal way. Superhero movies frequently fail on this score. They simply make the consequences really, really big, so big that they become vague and impersonal. The fate of a city, of a nation, of the whole world, of the galaxy. Intellectually, we all know this is awful, but it’s hard to grasp something that big emotionally without tying it to a smaller person or thing. That’s why individual stories often help us understand a massive tragedy more readily than the horrible, overarching narrative.
No matter how big or small you go, if the emotional connection to the consequences is absent–the weight of failure, as it were–no amount of explosions, or ticking clocks, or dramatic pauses are going to make any difference.
I’m going to use another historical example here, but I will acknowledge up front that historical narratives are a bit of a “cheat” (a valid one) in that they actually happened. Weight and finality are inherent, because they are true. We can see a story unfold and know the ending full well, but we are still affected because it’s not just a story.
A last Example
I have rarely (if ever) seen a ticking clock and the sense of consequence used as well as in the film Dunkirk. This is first and foremost because it is a fictionalized rendering of actual events. Real people actually had all these experiences. But all actions or failures of action have direct and (nearly always) final consequences. The style of filming zeroes in with almost claustrophobic proximity, on just a few people. The fate of hundreds of thousands hangs in the air, but focusing on just a handful of people brings home what EVERYONE is going through a that moment in a way a broad sweep could never quite achieve.
In that film, small choices have fatal consequences. Over and over again. Mistakes, however understandable in the moment, result in irreversable outcomes. Many are saved. Many are lost. We see both. We see the last-second save, and the second-too-late loss. Just thinking about one particular scene right now sets a stone in my stomach.
Now Dunkirk is not a straightforward dash-or-die story, but it is a type of one if you look at the actual history. There was a ticking clock to get those soldiers off the beach. The longer it took, the more were likely to die. Consequences of a massive failure could have been devastating, and consequences of individual failure very final indeed.
That is a very sobering example, of course, so I will finish with something a bit more…mundane.
Running
I like to run. It is one of the easiest, cheapest sports. Other than shoes, no equipment required. But I have to fight against a lazy streak when I run for time. In order to improve at speed or distances, you have to be at least a little uncomfortable at some point. A comfortable pace is nice sometimes, but it is a stagnant pace. At some point, you need to hurt a little to succeed. I resist this a little. I don’t want to be uncomfortable.
For years now I have often played this little game with myself when I find that lazy streak bucking up.
“What if someone’s life was at stake? What if the fate of the world rested on whether or not I am able to run fast enough? Would I be this lazy? I’ll pretend I have a message to deliver, and if I don’t keep an 8:30 pace for these last two miles, something terrible will happen.”
Obviously this is silly on the surface, just sort of a mind-trick I employ to try and maintain a minimum goal pace. But underneath, there’s a little something more to it. What if someone’s life really did depend on my willingness, my ability to push myself past all expected physical capacity? What if that tiny streak of laziness had consequences? In dire situations, lives really do hang on the muscle memory we’ve developed–mental, physcial, or moral muscle memory–or failed to develop.
The dash or die trope strips its characters of any insulation from their flaws, any superfluous factors, any easy outs. It tells us who the characters really are in the moment of desperation, and then it shows us the consequences.