Sometimes it’s nice to bask in the warm glow of something familiar. I don’t mean old. I mean something similar to other things you’ve enjoyed, whether it be a book, a movie, or a piece of music. Very often, you want to have the same pleasure centers of your brain tickled just like they have one-thousand times before. This explains the enduring appeal of blues music.
Before you navigate away from this blog in a petulant frenzy, keep reading. I think you’re going to like what I have to say.
I get bored kind of easily. If I know exactly where something is going, I tune out . . . unless it’s done really well.
See, I like being surprised. Being hooked. I need a little something more than a I-IV-V chord progression. Or a shaky-cam shoot-out. Or another elf- and dwarf-laden tale of a big evil meanie who will take over the world if his ancient artifact falls in the possession of the wrong people.
Doing something well does not always equate to technical skill, though technical skill always helps. This is where tropes come in. The word “trope” technically means “a figure of speech,” but has become used to mean common literary or rhetorical devices or motifs used in a given medium.
Like the bad guy’s castle starting to crumble after he’s been defeated. Or a I-IV-V blues chord progression.
The thing is, I like tropes as much as I like surprise. I employ tropes in my own writing all the time. I just like it when an artist does something different with tropes. Instead of playing a straight-ahead blues tune that goes exactly as expected, I like when musicians do what, say, Led Zeppelin does on “The Lemon Song” by adding an ascending riff on the I and the IV before getting a little funky on the turnaround and then having a double-time freakout in the middle before the band lurches back to the original bluesy stomp. This is why new “classic rock” bands like Greta Van Fleet bore me to tears—they just play the tropes straight while missing the subtle nuances and creative twists that made the bands of the 60s and 70s so good in the first place.
Or take a bog-standard pop chord progression like the I-vi-IV-V you’ve heard a million times before. In the hands of a creative band like The Police in their smash 1983 hit “Every Breath You Take,” that progression takes on a moody, plaintive air thanks to guitarist Andy Summers’s unique chord voicings and the fact that the verses end with a deceptive cadence, moving from the V to the iv, throwing off the listener and adding a creepy vibe. And then they modulate to a different key during the chorus.
It’s the little things that keep a work of art interesting.
. . . a time-signature change.
. . . a double-agent or a betrayal.
. . . the true nature of a magic item that does not operate exactly as advertised.
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Faith No More’s breakthrough 1989 album The Real Thing is a stone-cold 1980s metal classic. “Metal” is a bit reductionist, as the band goes through multiple styles including keyboard-driven melodic pop, funk, and prog. Track 4, “Surprise! Your Dead!” sounds like a long-lost Metallica song, which makes sense given that it was written by guitarist and certified metalhead Jim Martin when he was in a band with future Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. It’s an aggressive, abrasive exercise in 12/8 time, a perfect meter for chugging heavy metal, that goes off the rails in the instrumental break between the second and third verses. All of a sudden, we have unison odd-time riffing that would make Rush proud with some very Frank Zappa-approved twisting chromatic runs and off-beat drumming that’s so wildly off-kilter it threatens to break down into a chaotic frenzy before the band tightens up and launches into the out-chorus. It’s the kind of surprise that makes the listener stand up and take notice . . . “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!”
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Music might be the easiest way to explain how tweaking well-worn tropes can make the familiar feel fresh without getting into outright subversion or slipping in some sledgehammer messaging. There’s nothing wrong with straight-up blues, but you might not remember much about a straight-up blues song when it’s done. Now, if the soloist is really good, the soloist will be memorable, but what about the underlying song? This is where the hooks, the twisting of the tropes comes in.
When human speech enters the equation, that’s a different story.
Music is a language, yes, but it conveys ideas in a more emotional and less dialectical way than words. Many lament the literary and cinematic trope of the sucker-punch or the rug pull, where the writers lead the audience down a certain path, setting up plot points, only to pull a bait-and-switch at the crucial moment. “You thought the hero was going to win? Ha ha, aren’t I clever? He fails and doesn’t get the girl!” This is also called The Last Jedi syndrome.
Adding surprise to a story, or a piece of music even, has the potential to devolve into a cheap thrill, an unearned climax that feels unsatisfying due to improper set up. There’s a sex joke here I leave it up to the reader to make.
I argue that the best surprises are the ones that, after they happen, make sense, where the audience can piece together exactly how this surprise came about. In other words, it’s very satisfying when the surprise feels like it comes out of nowhere, but really doesn’t. The 1995 crime drama The Usual Suspects or the 1999 supernatural mystery The Sixth Sense are great examples of this: in retrospect, the twists make perfect sense.
The last book I read that did this well was Dan Simmons’s The Fall of Hyperion, book two in his excellent four-part Hyperion Cantos series. Once it became clear who the antagonist really was and how they had gone about putting their plan into effect, my jaw hit the floor, not because it was shocking, but because it made so much sense, yet Simmons hid the twist in plain sight. Of course this was the big bad! How did I not see it coming from miles away?
Because Dan Simmons is the greatest living sci-fi author, that’s why.
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Twisting tropes is a little easier than actually knocking the reader off his ass with a surprise. My son and I recently watched the 1998 Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan buddy cop movie Rush Hour. Buddy cop . . . now there’s a sadly dead genre. I love buddy cop movies. The trope is simple: take to clashing, contrasting types of people, make them partners, and have them go solve a case. Hijinx ensue, and I am a big fan of hijinx. In the case of Rush Hour, all they did was pair a fast-talking, quick-thinking, better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-than-permission, bend-the-rules black American detective and pair him with a quiet, thoughtful, Chinese special agent who wishes to save face in addition to solving the case. This is an almost laughably uncomplicated premise, yet the movie seems to just write itself.
Surprise is a different matter. One trick I learned that really stuck with me came from reading my friend Brian Niemeier’s books, particularly his Soul Cycle tetralogy, though Combat Frame XSeed. One thing Brian does great is have his protagonist’s plans go belly-up. The bad guy always seems to snatch victory away from the heroes, throwing monkey wrench after monkey wrench into their plans and forcing them to come up with new strategies to win the day. If overused, this trope can get old, but it does add a lot of pop to what could be otherwise straightforward narratives.
J.R.R. Tolkien does this in The Fellowship of the Ring, where the titular band of heroes is unable to cross the Misty Mountains via the pass over the mountain of Caradhras and are then forced to go to the one place Gandalf feared the most—the Mines of Moria. It’s a subtle bit of surprise, but one he sets up perfectly.
Conflict is the key. These surprises are best when they add difficulty to the protagonist’s lives or otherwise affect the story in a way that matters. The old joke of having a random character be gay is just there for shock value and to appeal to a tiny fraction of the audience who views gayness in and of itself the most important plot point in the history of mankind. But if a character being gay actually matters to the story? Then you’ve got a surprise that actually matters.
Surprise! You’re dead!
Get a little creative. Get a little funky. Give me something I’m not expecting, even one thing. Make me want to keep turning those pages to see what happens next. Put your own spin on a well-worn trope. Thomas Pynchon’s hippie private eye in Inherent Vice. The true nature of the team’s mission in Predator. Sklar Hast’s plan to construct metal weaponry to fight the Kragen in Jack Vance’s The Blue World.Even little surprises, the written equivalent of an ear-catching countermelody that pops up in the second chorus of a song or an out-of-left-field instrumental break, really make a story really come to life.
I’m not really asking for much, after all.
The campaign for The Final Home is still going strong! This book, and the series as a whole, are full of surprise and wonder and fresh spins on well-worn tropes. Back it here–we’re almost halfway to our first stretch goal of a Swordbringer omnibus with a brand-new cover. Back the campaign here and spread the word!