On Writing, With Carmen Petaccio: At War With The Tropes

I am not a writer and therefore have no business advising anyone on the business of writing. My knowledge of the language and narrative arts is limited. I know the usage difference between “between” and “among.” I know there is absolutely, positively no reason to ever split the infinitive outside of dialogue. I know your character has to “save the cat” in the first act and I know what a denouement is (though I don’t know how denouement is pronounced). That said, you don’t have to be a licensed physician to diagnosis a decapitation; you can just point to the bloody absence-stump where the person’s head used to be and say, “Oh, this person had his head cut off. Case closed!”

As the lay diagnostician can recognize a missing head, I can recognize the ruinous tropes of our modern storytelling forms. What do I mean by “ruinous tropes”? I mean the hackneyed tenants of story and language whose familiarity has superseded their functionality. (Less obnoxiously, these are cliched storytelling tools and faux pas that make your lyric essay bad when your lyric essay should be good. Avoid them.) I am not a writer, but I will promise you this: if you eliminate these tropes from your writing, the final product will be irrefutably and completely better in every conceivable way. Look ye upon these bloody absence-stumps and rejoice. Case closed.

The 10 Worst Tropes in Narrative Art

Trope #1: Having Your Characters Bury a Dead Bird


Whether you’re Michael Cunningham, a staff writer on The Office, or 7 out of 10 people in a writing workshop, the writerly return on having your characters bury a dead bird is too enticing to forgo. Like, in the end, isn’t human life as fragile and fleeting as the life of a symbolically-rich bird? Yes, it is, and we’ve seen enough dead bird funerals to prove it. The death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths; the burial of a dead bird will be the whole sack of shit now written by you.

Trope #2: The Scholastic Anomaly Trope, or SAT

You have a character from the “wrong side” of the “tracks.” Maybe they’re poor. Maybe they’re a minority. Maybe they’re BOTH. How do you subtly intimate to your audience that, despite his or her limitations, your character is still a sentient, worthwhile fictional person? By giving them a high SAT score, of course! What greater measure of a person’s value do we have than a uniformly flawed and corporate-issued nonsense exam given to seventeen-year-old children? Choices? Actions? Thoughts? No way! Give your character a 2350 (not too high now) and move on.

Trope #3: x, save y.”

A too-common sentence construction reads something like, “His picaresque Bildungsroman included almost every  trope, save ‘Having Your Characters Bury a Dead Bird.'” This is known as The X Comma Save Y Trope, and it is a trope because no one in the history of mouths has ever ended a sentence in such a way. Unless you intend to follow The X Comma Save Y Trope by writing, “…said Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham,” don’t do it. No argument, save nothing.


Trope #4: “Good Days, Bad Days.”

“How is he?” She said, casting her teary eyes toward the sick man’s room.

Her brother tried to make his face look brave. He found that he couldn’t. “Well,” he said. “He has good days and he has bad days…but today is one of the good days, because you’re here.”

Hand-in-hand, they went into their sick, dying father’s room. As soon as they entered, the enfeebled old man sat bolt upright in the hospice bed, his eyes wide and bloodshot with the rage of a far younger man.

“You fools!” the old man cried. “I have fucking Alzheimer’s Cancer. EVERY DAY IS A BAD DAY.”

With that, he fell back to the poop-strewn hospice bed, and died.

Trope #5: Not Knowing the Difference Between “Between” and “Among”

Some things happen between two things. Other things happen among a group of more than two things. Easy.

Trope #6: Adults Watching Children Play in a Playground

If your twenty-two years of life have taught you anything, it’s that [cue petulant baby voice] babies NEVER grow up, babies just become BIGGER BABIES [resume petulant “grown-up” voice]. The most efficient way to showcase this penetrating observation is to have one of your (so-called!) adult characters watch one of your (so-called!) child characters play in a playground. Like, in the end, isn’t adult society just one big playground?

Trope #7: “Language!”

One of the most inescapable tropes known to narrative art, “Language!” has afflicted geniuses (George Saunders, Christopher Guest), second-order geniuses (Judd Apatow, B.J. Novak), and lobotomized blowhards (Kevin Smith) alike. This trope involves an authority figure reacting to a subordinate’s expletive by saying, “Hey! Watch the language!” This is the worst type of meta-level writing, writing about writing that calls cloying attention to its being writing about writing. F-word this type of writing.

Trope #8: Over-thinking and/or Neuroses and/or Panic Attacks = Intelligence

lena dumbham

Can you never sleep at night because your brain is racing? Are you neurotic to an endearing fault? Do you suffer panic attacks in the face of the slightest inconvenience? Then you may be a flat intelligent character impersonating a round intelligent character in a story written by a low-rent Whit Stillman meets a lower-rent Nicole Holofcener. Sure, you had to go to Oberlin instead of Sarah Lawrence, and your therapist has you on Zoloft instead of Paxil, and lately your panic attacks have been frequent instead of periodic, but don’t abandon hope. Maybe one day Jonathan Franzen will adopt you and turn you into someone interesting. Until then, you must “suffer.”

Trope #9: Jewish Identity

There is nothing left to say on this subject.

Trope #10: Everyone is A Rapist or A Murderer or Both, No Exceptions

Imagine a world where everyone wasn’t a rapist or a murderer or both, like the world you very much live in. Who would The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo tattoo “I’m a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist” onto the belly of? How would Dexter confront the demons of his past? Why would Elizabeth Moss want to reach the top of the lake? What would Dick Wolf have to executive produce? In order, the answers to those questions are no one, he wouldn’t, she wouldn’t, and nothing. So when you can’t decide how to raise the dramatic stakes of your story, simply have your character live in a place where everyone is a rapist or a murderer or both. (Your character should also be a murderer, albeit one who only murders rapists and other murderers, because moral complexity.) Like so many of these tropes, this violent, misogynistic insanity is no longer the exception; it is the rule. And it fucking sucks. Ah, sorry! Language.