Tropes, Motifs and Being Meta
Tropes, in one definition, are “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” There are many types, but one, in the subcategory of devices, we see quite frequently in crime shows on TV or in mystery books. There is a crime, and an investigation, and the first suspect is never the true suspect. That also gets into the Red Herring territory. For myself, I have always tried not to rely on tropes, simply because I don’t ever want the reader to easily predict what will happen. But I do have tropes of my own, which have begun to appear in my stories, and I’m okay with that, because I created them myself. Tropes like female characters, tropes like putting my characters through a specific type of hell before I allow them to come out the victor. Tropes, even, like allowing the good guys (or girls, as it were) to win in the end, and seeing the bad guys (or girls) get what’s coming to them.
Defined as, “a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition,”
Or “any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood.”
Motifs are as wide and varied as the authors who produce them. My motifs are no exception. Some of my motifs are:
- The badness of men
- The strength of women
- The value of a trusted friend
- The value of a good relationship
- The omnipresent nature of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Sometimes, having characters who are writers or detectives can also be construed as motifs. But then I also have meta-tropes and meta-motifs, like the frequent appearance of French doors, fireplaces, cabins in the woods or mountains, erotica, coffee, being an HSP, using eCigs, etc.
Now that I have a body of work created, I’ve realized that it’s an ongoing challenge, to continue to come up with something new when the common caveat that “it’s all been done before” keeps hovering about. At first, I thought I might be losing my creativity, but when you’ve used all the obvious or naturally occurring things, you have to dig deeper. You have to meet some new people, read some more books by other authors, and have some new experiences. But there’s also quite a lot of author-preference involved, no matter how many times you hear a writer deny that there is anything of themselves in their books. It’s rare that a writer will create everything from a new seed. Most authors are hard-pressed to avoid their own likes, dislikes, beliefs, agendas, and passions when crafting characters, plots, and motifs.
I always smile when I came across the Bougainvillea Dean Koontz uses whenever he describes what the environment looks like. I suspect Mr. Koontz had a few of those plants scattered about his own home and property, and maybe when he gazed out the window of his office, that’s what he saw first, and that familiar item found its way repeatedly into his work quite naturally. Perhaps he noticed it, and just kept doing it, as a running gag, or perhaps he never noticed he did that at all.
I did a quick search and found this, so will share, even though it veers off the main subjects a bit:
Q #1: I just read the advance proof of THE HUSBAND. Wow! INTENSITY moved fast, VELOCITY was fast, but this is a rocket. Fantastic! I adore Mitch. And Holly is a fabulous role-model. All the beautiful references to nature. Do you really know so much about flowers and trees? Will you re-do my yard? —Carmen, Connecticut
DEAN KOONTZ: Thanks for the effusive review, Carmen. Your check is in the mail. I’ve been interested in landscape design for at least thirty years. When we landscaped our current home, we had to import 240 trees, large and small, because the land was bare. Gerda and I visited nurseries and selected each specimen, which probably sounds insufferably boring to some folks, but we had a great time. I’m particularly familiar with Pacific Coast and Southwest plants. Last year I received a letter from a guy—let’s call him Grump—who said he was sick of encountering bougainvillea in so many of my novels. Bougainvillea is a vine with showy, colorful flowers, cascades of dazzling flowers. We don’t have any bougainvillea at our place because it grows faster than weeds and is very difficult to keep under control, but I enjoy it on other people’s properties. Grump said the word bougainvillea and the thought of it repelled him every time he encountered it. “By God,” he said, “if you don’t stop using it in your novels, I’ll stop reading them.” After advising him to seek psychiatric care, I looked over the manuscript of THE HUSBAND, discovered I hadn’t yet used the word bougainvillea, and at once added it to Chapter 23.
Read more: http://davesgarden.com/community/forums/t/617431/#ixzz3xGMTPUNT
(In reference to the incident cited later in this essay, Maybe I should have added a few more blank pages before I put In Absentia back up.)
Either way, every author is guilty of infusing his/her work with personal details.
I also literally and literarily, run out of things to choose from, after so many novels. Like names, locations, cars, plots, occupations, plot devices, etc. Partly, that’s due to my own stylistic preferences. I’ve never been a generalities writer, so while I also believe in an economy of words when providing details and descriptions, I also believe I am able to do that because I am so specific about certain things. There are some compelling reasons for this specificity, which I detailed in my essay, Distracting Fiction: Brands Vs. Generic (http://kellijaebaeli.com/distracting-fiction-brand-vs-generic/) But suffice to say, I believe that what type of car a person drives is a method of character elucidation, likewise, what foods and beverages they like, how they dress, how they make love, who they respect or detest, when they reach their limit, what they cherish, what occupation they choose–all these particulars are methods to provide insight into that character and give the reader a fuller picture of who they really are.
As for the meta aspects, I really enjoy finding the layers of meaning, the connective tissue between people and those they love, their fears and hopes and dreams, their weaknesses and strengths, their inciting motivations.
As an illustration of meta, from the humor files, we find “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The bartender turns to them, takes one look, and says, “What is this – some kind of joke?” That too, is meta. Another one I enjoy is, “What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?” or “I hope one day to live in a world where a chicken can cross the road, without having its motives questioned.”
Meta is a relatively new term being bandied about these days, but it does have layers of meaning. like The Droste effect—”known as mise en abyme in art—is the effect of a picture appearing within itself, in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear. The appearance is recursive: the smaller version contains an even smaller version of the picture, and so on. Only in theory could this go on forever; practically, it continues only as long as the resolution of the picture allows, which is relatively short, since each iteration geometrically reduces the picture’s size. It is a visual example of a strange loop, a self-referential system of instancing which is the cornerstone of fractal geometry.”
This is what i think of as Visual-Meta.
Anyway, I believe meta originated with the Internet search engines (the underlying subcategories of things, or unseen information beneath the obvious subject) and things like categories of genres on Amazon ( SIDENOTE: I have a continual problem with categories as my work is never neatly in one category, and it’s not accurate to place it there, solely). But just like the term “meme” originated with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, when he spoke of the nature of genes, meta had become more than its original definition. Dawkins coined the term in his book, The Selfish Gene way back in 1976. It was “a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.” The concept, again in an ironic, meta way, EVOLVED, until now it is also not only “(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential,” but it is blended with meta and irony.
I have thus had writer-characters name their books the same as a title of my own; I have given my cat’s names to their cats, I have used irony and references that reflect my own experiences, and braided them together with the meta elements, as in writing about characters who are writing about writing.
A writer-character talking about character development is also meta, because it is in a book about a character, and the author is developing the character by showing them developing a character. This subject has also blended into a form of soapboxing, wherein I speak my own truth, through the mouths of the characters, even while I explore mindsets that I have absolutely no affiliation with. Some forays into this contrary aspect have been difficult and even painful to write, but we must honor the material, even when it isn’t easy. Regardless, I always try to teach the reader something. I always try to examine sometimes uncomfortable subjects, when I feel they need more airtime.
One of my favorite meta-moments in my own work, was in In Absentia, the second book in the Rain Falls series. The two main characters are authors, and I titled one of the chapters Writer’s Block, and then left that page blank and moved on to the next chapter. This was meta, plus irony, plus humor. Unfortunately, like a rubber band, this stretch snapped back and I got flogged by my own attempt to be clever, because several readers complained to Amazon that that there was a blank page in my book. Amazon even jerked the book down for a few days, until I contacted them to explain, and then they put it back up. But it didn’t give me writer’s block. (See Adventures in Indie Publishing, Incident #227: http://kellijaebaeli.com/adventures-indie-publishing-incident-227/)
Also, in Rain Falls, I had the Tegan Lowry character working on a book titled, Saturation Point, and that’s an actual book I’m working on; further, I am flirting with the idea of putting Tegan Lowry on it as the co-author, and even including her author bio along with mine, using her backstory from the book. Very meta.
James Patterson did a version of this, when he springboarded off his TV character in Castle, who is a writer. He offered real books supposedly written by Richard Castle, even though Richard Castle was a fictional character who wrote books.
The meta-thing has been around since Primordial Ooze, but it has had different names– general ones, like irony–but those monikers never quite pinpointed the nuance of what meta is. Like, you go to the store and buy a trash can, they put it in a bag. You take it home, remove it from the bag, and then put the bag in the trash can.
And naturally, I just had a tangent-thought: It occurred to me that it might be problematic to actually throw away a trash can. The garbage collectors would probably never pick it up. They’d just leave it on the curb. That too, is meta.
In the first of my AKA Investigations series, I wrote a scene wherein Jobeth O’Brien gets hired for her first job, because another patron noticed her reading a book about investigations. That’s a multi-layered-meta, because a few readers complained that this was not realistic, even contrived, but the irony there was that this really happened to me, back when I was flirting with the idea of becoming a private investigator. This also moves into the area of truthiness and the irony of fiction that has to seem like truth, but not too true, or it won’t seem real. Basically, writers sometimes have to alter the truth to make something seem true, but then, by augmenting it to allow for human psychology, they, in effect, render it a lie. I wrote several essays about that, too. Like, Stranger Fiction, Reviews & Truthiness (http://kellijaebaeli.com/stranger-fiction-reviews-truthiness/) and The Truth of Fiction (http://kellijaebaeli.com/the-truth-of-fiction/)
I have also mentioned characters from other books in another one. That may not be so much meta as it is what I call Cross-pollination in fiction.
Anyway, I have a great deal of meta in my work, but I often have trouble remembering it until I come across it again, because being meta, is itself, META.
All of this chicanery is quite a lot of fun, and a prerequisite, I believe, for any author, who necessarily spends quite a lot of time in her own head, and in isolation. We are not just entertaining the reader when we write, we are entertaining ourselves.
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