Christopher Booker studied for thirty four years to come to the conclusion he drew in The Seven Basic Plots, which is a really apt title to suggest there are only seven basic plots that a narrative may take. George Polti and Carlo Gozzi, on the other hand, identified thirty-six unique ‘dramatic situations’ available to storytelling. The number is up to debate, but the overarching conclusion of storytelling research is that there are a limited number of stories to tell, and once committing to a story to tell, there are an even more limited number of ways that the story can go.
I’ve touched on this myself, suggesting that a ‘revenge story’ is limited to asking the dramatic question whether it is right to seek vengeance or if it is worth it, but more broadly this can be seen in other genres too, such as romance where the outcome is to either put the main pair together or not together. As storytelling has gone on for thousands upon thousands of years, it’s incredibly difficult to create novel stories, free of the storytelling scaffolding known as ‘tropes’ – a term used to describe the different situations, character archetypes and other tools that stories use.
Serial watchers, like myself, notice tropes almost instinctively. It becomes easy to pick up who a love interest is, or who a rival is, often based on design/casting, body language or cinematography. When a story commits to its fundamental setup, it puts the goalposts in place such that the climax is a binary answer; Will the couple get together? Will the hobbits succeed in travelling through Mordor? Will the villain be defeated? The same is true of character arcs, too, whereby a traumatic incident will either be overcome or become the catalyst for a dramatic mistake.
It’s important to note that this does not suck the fun out of watching. A little clairvoyance never ruined the fun, because what’s important is the quality of the journey and the richness of discussion. I tend to compliment works when they ground an argument without bias for the conclusion, for example, Liz to Aoi Tori didn’t commit too hard to either answer until the very final few moments which created genuine tension. When I see a trope, I sometimes applaud because I enjoy the trope – and the reverse is also true.
Symphogear’s final season utilised mind control to stir up
Tsubasa’s feelings, but failed to cement them.
There are tropes that cause my eyes to roll.
I’ve been racking my brain, thinking which trope is the worst offender. Which trope grinds my gears the most, and instantly makes me groan or stop watching. The ‘dying manic pixie dream girl’ trope, whereby a loser boy is brought out of his shell by an overexcitable girl just before she passes away is one such trope that always irks me, because I think there’s much better ways to inspire self-inserting men out of their reveries than with the allusion of ephemeral romance in a bargain-bin fantasy. There are tropes embedded in the gradually changing meta of oppression, too, such as ‘token black character dies first’, where the novel situation of a non-white character being given screen-time and dialogue is dangled like a carrot on a stick to make the audience want more of their presence before they’re killed off to an enhanced degree of audience response (and this trope has begun to morph into ‘token LGBT character dies first’).
And, yet, I think the trope I am most annoyed by is mind control or possession.
There’s nothing better than the drama of a character switching sides or betraying their friends, but mind control is a cheap and entirely inconsequential method to achieve that. If a character is acting outside of their own agency, it means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. There may be a brief problem where the hero cannot conventionally fight the enemy because they are worried about hurting an ally or friend, but it’s ultimately not different from a hostage situation. Most of the time, mind control is defeated by accessing a character’s true feelings, and it’s a ridiculously cheesy solution to something that could have been setup with much less convoluted methods such as the aforementioned hostage situation, or blackmail. Mind control is a cop-out to giving characters meaning for switching sides.
Kilgrave’s mind control powers worm their ways into the victim’s heads,
in a world digging deeply into the aftermath of a survivor.
Of course, there’s ways of making this trope work. My favourite way around this is the suggestion that the mind control or possession is more of a stimulus to act on deeply seated feelings, as this can bring to light underlying drama. On from that note, it could be suggested that a weak mental state allows the mind control to happen in the first place, which could be related to neglected trauma and thus setup future developments. It’s also possible that, purely mechanically, a villain is ‘better’ at using a hero’s powers than they themselves are, so there’s something gained in the aftermath. Tragically, mind control can cause characters to ‘never be the same again’, becoming literal zombies or regressing into a vegetative state, or perhaps becoming influenced by the voice in their head to legitimately turn to the other side, but once again, there are typically better ways to achieve this than a purely theoretical stimulus.
I’ve got to hand it to Jessica Jones’ first season, where David Tennant’s creepy mind controller, Kilgrave, is paralleled with themes of abuse and trauma to become the best incarnation of this trope I’ve seen. Mind control is ultimately violation of the deepest part of the subconscious, and there’s so much untapped potential in the trope.
What is your least favourite trope? I’d love to hear what other storytelling devices really grind your gears. It would make me seriously evaluate stories that I consider favourites if I could understand the tropes underlying them being problematic or inconsequential.