Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Guest Post: Tropes and Discworld

While I'm off enjoying my all-to-short writing retreat,my lovely cousin Josh is going to fill in for me. He's my kindred spirit, nerdy to the core. Treat him like one of your own!

Hello readers of this blog that I've hijacked for the week! I'm Josh and I'm going to be talking to you today about some things you probably don't care much about! Then next week my cousin will go back to telling you why Han Solo is more responsible than you or whatever.

Anyways, I'd like to talk to you about two things: Tropes and the Discworld. One of these things is a tool to help you write, the other is a good series so prolific that if you read a book a day it would still take you over a month to get caught up. Why an I talking about both of them together? Well I'll get to that later. And also, I only have this blog for the one post.

I'll start with Tropes. A trope is a device or convention that is commonly used in popular media that writers rely on because we as an audience have had enough experiences with the trope to know what the writer expects us to feel. Its important to know that a trope is NOT a cliché, although a lot of clichés are tropes. If you want to do your own research I would suggest checking out TV Tropes. (Warning: I take no responsibility to the months of life that may or not be wasted if you click that link and be cautioned that TV Tropes will ruin your life.

For an example a common trope is Chekhov's Gun. Chekhov's Gun is when something is mentioned in passing early on in a story and then forgotten, then later on it becomes very important. For example, in the Firefly episode 'Our Mrs. Reynolds' Jayne offers his gun 'Vera' to Mal early on, and we write it off as a funny scene. Then near the end of the episode the plot requires a big gun, and Jayne busts out Vera to save the day. Although note that a Chekhov's Gun doesn't have to be (and usually isn't) actually a gun.

Now, I mentioned this but I'll say again a trope is not a cliché. And, to that extent, Tropes are Tools. If you are browsing TV Tropes and find something that you say to yourself 'I did that in my story!' then that's not necessarily a bad thing. Tropes are useful to guide the audiences expectations, and a master can subvert tropes to make a story so much more satisfying.

Which brings us to the Discworld. For those who don't know the Discworld is a long standing book series by Sir Terry Pratchett, which as of right now has thirty nine books in it. I've read every single one at least twice. No lie; I'm considering a Discworld tattoo.

The Discworld books are a parody of fantasy novels. I don't like the word parody, to me parody sounds like a cheaply put out book made for a quick laugh without too much thought. The Discworld is not that. The Discworld novels are far more thoughtful than most 'serious' fantasy novels I've read, they don't necessarily have a lighthearted tone, and they are some of the best stories you'll ever read.

For a quick summary: The Discworld is a flat planet or 'Disc' which sits on the back of four giant elephants which in turn stand on the back of a massive turtle flying through space. Its a world that requires magic to function and seems to rely on common sense rather than logic to guide how events take place.

So, coming to my point: Why did I include both Tropes and the Discworld in this blog post? Because the Discworld novels are so very very good at subverting, double subverting, downplaying, playing for laughs, inverting, averting, and even playing straight tropes. The series spawned its own wiki... years before wikis were invented.

So a common trope is to have magic users by their nature be weaker and squishier than knights in shining armor. In most media that's because having a huge hulking man with arms like tree trunks ALSO be able to throw a fireball at you hardly seems fair. On the Discworld the conventions of magic are designed so that Wizards become too lazy to go out and do things and instead prefer to spend their tenure at the Unseen university eating 10 square meals a day and taking naps in between. The university was designed that way to keep wizards from destroying the universe.

Another example is the million to one chance. It's accepted that the phrase 'Million to one' means you have one chance in a million to actually succeed. It's also accepted that if someone in a story says something is a million to one chance... it's probably going to happen anyways. On the Discworld people recognize that million to one chances crop up nine times out of ten. To the point that in an early book the heroes actually spend time making the task they are trying to do harder just so it will become a million to one chance (It turns out they had a 0% chance to do what they were trying to anyways, but just go read Guards! Guards! if you are curious).

So that's my soapbox anyways. If you are a Discworld fan, a Troper, or just want to tell me how stupid a Discworld tattoo sounds to you, feel free to leave a comment. Sam will be back next week to talk to you about stuff you actually care about again. Peace out.

 Joshua Marvin is a professional slacker who enjoys spending far too much time on the internet, not writing a novel, and forcing his fiancée into playing board games with him.

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