Rebelling with a Cause: Know Your Tropes Before You Break Them

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where a trope starts. If I had to guess, the badass biker in the leather jacket apotheosized into pop culture with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. It’s a film that seeped into my brain through parody and homage. I’ve never seen it, but when I see a leather jacket in a film, I’ve got an idea of who the character wearing it is, or at least how they want to be seen.

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It’s harder to pinpoint when a trope evolves, how it turns. One of the things that comes with the badass biker trope for me is the emotional baggage. It might not be for everyone, but I can’t see a leather jacket (even though it was a jean jacket in this film) without thinking of the scene in The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson talks about his father putting cigarettes out on his arms. At that point, the rebel started  having a cause. A deep, dark one.

Here’s where it gets tricky: your reader may have seen Rebel Without a Cause and not The Breakfast Club. They may associate leather jackets with the LGBT community. There’s probably others that I haven’t anticipated. Tropes are a form of cultural shorthand. Cultural scholars who study them keep up with every mutation of a trope, but your audience doesn’t necessarily. You don’t have to be an expert to use them in your writing, but you need at least a passing knowledge.

That knowledge allows you to do two things. The first is to avoid the offensive ones. The black guy dies first. Kill your gays. (Shannon talked about other offensive LGBTQ+ tropes earlier this month). Interracial love leads to suffering and then death. Fridging. There are too many offensive tropes to make a comprehensive list, but I can’t turn on my television without seeing those. When you use offensive tropes, you hurt the people you’re writing about by using a reductive approach. They’re treated as cannon fodder, not humans. When you do that, you bounce the people you’re writing about out of your story, as well as the audiences that are aware.

Awareness also allows you to turn tropes, to use them with a slight change and by doing so breathe new life into them. My favorite example is from David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet. The main character, Jeffrey, has been dating Sandy, who’s also dating the captain of the football team. Jeffrey and Sandy pull up to the curb outside his house. The captain of the football team and his friends slide in around them and pile out of the cars, letterman jackets everywhere. Jeffrey gets out of the car, and as he’s going to be beaten, a traumatized and naked Dorothy Vallens runs over to embrace him, howling in agony. It’s an amazing moment, because the audience is stuck with the high school boys, unsure of what to say or do. They eventually pack back into their cars, unable to emotionally deal with the realness of Vallens’ emotions.

That scene, and Lynch’s power in it, come from the audience being on the same page as Lynch about the trope. There’s supposed to be a fight. So when we get a crushed Vallens screaming for support instead, the whole moment is transformed. Much of Lynch’s success as a filmmaker comes from the way he twists tropes.

You can do that too. But first, you’ve got to study tropes by reading. By viewing. By absorbing as many damn stories as you can in whatever form you can find them in. You can check out TV Tropes (I’ve wasted a good many days there), but there’s no substitute for doing your own research. Read, read, read!