Tropes are one of those things that I’ve mentioned about a zillion times but never actually talked about. There’s probably a formal definition, but a trope is basically a commonly used marker or indicator used to tell the audience something about the characters, plot, or setting.
Setting/genre is a big place where tropes show up a lot. Ideally every story is set in a brand new, unique setting…no, that’s not true. Stories are not about the setting or the world; they are about the STORY. Go look at Lord of the Rings, the first scene: There are a bunch of people playing. They are wearing what would be called rural or peasant attire. If you look closely, they aren’t quite human. BOOM. Fantasy. Not much later Gandalf, the wizard, shows up. Wizards? Medieval? BOOM. High fantasy. They didn’t need to explain the world: they showed you the wizard and the medieval garb and your experience of story filled in the rest.
A good place to see tropes at play is my old friend Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, because its format requires them. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically a parallel universe story: the kids, Sasshi and Arumi hop from universe to universe trying to get back to their own. The gimmick is that they really have to want to go home…and Sasshi doesn’t. So instead they go between universes which, it turns out, are drawn from his mind. And he’s 12. So there’s a harem world and a noir world and a dinosaur world and a space/mecha world and a fairy tale world…Got it?
It’s a neat idea and enormous fun, but one of the problems they had was setting each episode in a new world. They didn’t have time to set each one up, so they relied heavily on tropes.
Sasshi (left) and Arumi, in the Noir episode
From my standpoint that’s a good good thing, because then the tropes are really easy to see.
The first episode sets up the meta-plot. It’s set in the Abenobashi market, and what the kids discover there causes them to accidentally jump to universe two.
Universe Two: They see a sign that says, “Abenobashi Sword and Sorcery Arcade.” There’s a castle in the distance, and when they reach it Sasshi is called Sir Hero and tossed a purse of gold. See it? It’s high fantasy, and as we come to see, an arcade game with a high fantasy theme. BOOM. Tropes.
Universe Three: They find themselves in an Abenobashi that is inside a domed colony orbiting Saturn. BOOM. Sci-fi. Right? Planets? Space colonies? Of course it’s sci-fi. Those tropes couldn’t be anything else. Later on, when they fight in mecha, the producers stole some music from Neon Genesis.
Universe Four: Back to an Asian setting for Abenobashi, but the signs are all in Chinese. And there’s a panda. And the panda is in a really bad mood. BOOM. It’s one of those Kombat (as in Mortal Kombat) games.
Universe Five: They look up and see a pterodactyl, look around and a T-Rex growls at them. All the people are dressed like the Flintstones. You know what this is.
Universe Six: When they land they are now adults wearing ’30’s-era clothes, on a foggy wharf with ’30’s cars parked on it. BOOM. Noir.
Universe Seven is a flashback. Arumi’s Grandpa Masa does a voice-over when he talks about something that happened when he was a young man, and the camera reveals him as a young man (he’s a real punk, by the way), while the soundtrack plays ’50’s era jazz. Got it?
Universe Eight: It looks like they are back in their own time BUT Arumi is a small child and Sasshi is mobbed by impossibly cute schoolgirls in impossibly cute school uniforms. I’m not going to say, “BOOM. Harem.” because you already figured that out.
And so on through thirteen episodes. You see what they did? By simply deploying a few tropes – just a few of the sorts of thing the audience understands is associated with that sort of setting – right at the top of the episode, they define the setting without having to spend ten minutes (out of a 23 minute episode) explaining it.
Yeah, tropes can be clichés. Think about Hero-Comic Sidekick. Has that one been done or has it been done? But it’s done over and over because it works: You have the contrast between the (typically stoic) hero and the (typically hyperkinetic) side-kick to create tension inside the duo.
But that’s what tropes are and that’s what they do. If you use them properly you can save yourself hours of explanation. And if you ABUSE them properly, that is, subvert them, you can really yank an audience out of its comfort zone. Evangelion, anyone? But either way tropes can be your friend.
Oh, and way back at the top I said Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi is a parallel universe story. You know how I know? They used a parallel universe trope: The same characters – Grandpa Masa, Sasshi’s sister Ayako, nice Ms. Aki the transsexual, Sasshi’s grandmother Muni Muni – show up over and over playing different roles in the different settings. (Ayako as the dominatrix high priestess in the dinosaur world…WHOA!) BOOM. Not different universes, parallel universes. Because having the same people in different universes makes the universes parallel. It’s a trope.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.