Using Tropes to Fix a Weak Plot

I am heavily plotting Post-Apocalyptic Ninjas (with Mechs!) in a vain effort to forget that, right now, agents are judging my soul. It's taking a lot longer than I think it should (the plotting, not the soul-judging), partly because my wife and I decided nine kids wasn't enough, and partly because Post-Apoc Ninjas is the novel I have to love more than the one I'm querying,* so I want the plot to be STRONG before I start writing.

And I've discovered a couple things: (1) my first idea is often a trope I'm dangerously familiar with and (2) the weak parts of my plot are where I used my first idea.

Take, for example, the Engineered Public Confession (warning: TV Trope link), in which the hero tricks the villain into admitting to his plan while he secretly records it. It was done in Minority Report, UHF, Monsters Inc, practically every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and it's #189 on the Evil Overlord List.

Does that mean we can't do it? HECK, NO! (Dude, Murder, She Wrote ran for twelve seasons!) The question is: how?

First: Identify the point at which the reader will recognize the trope. It could be as early as when the hero confronts the villain, or later when the villain begins to gloat, or (depending on how you play it) it might not be until the hero reveals his recording device. Finding the point is subjective, and varies depending on what genre you're writing (a reader of detective novels will probably see it coming long before a romance reader, for example), but do your best.

Everything before that point doesn't matter. It's what you do after that point that makes or breaks the trope.

Second: Decide how to play the trope. There are a number of ways you can do this:
  1. Subvert it. We talked about this before. Subverting a trope means it looks like you're going to do the trope, then you twist it in some way. Maybe the recording device doesn't work, or the villain is genre savvy and doesn't fall for the trope, or the intended audience hears the confession and doesn't care (or agrees with the villain!). Don't make the mistake of thinking your twist is completely original, but it's a good way to keep the reader guessing, and it can take you down some unexpected plot paths.
  2. Avert it. This means don't do the trope at all. The reader recognizes the trope is coming just doesn't. There never was a recording device, or there was but the recording is never used. Sometimes averting a trope can be just as clever as a subversion. Sometimes it's just a different trope. But it's another way to go.
  3. Play it straight. Wait, wouldn't that be cliche? That's always a danger, but even played straight, there are a million ways you can pull it off (TWELVE SEASONS!). The recording could be accidental. It might be witnessed instead of recorded. There might be obstacles keeping the hero from showing the recording to the public. (This, btw, is where is most useful).
The trick is to keep it unpredictable. That point when the reader recognizes the trope? It's at that moment she creates expectations in her mind of how the story will play out. If you meet all those expectations exactly, you will (probably) have bored your reader. That's what you have to avoid.

* Yes, there's Cunning Folk. There are definitely things we like about Cunning Folk, but we're not convinced it's the novel to get us an agent, not without a significant amount of rewriting anyway. (When did we start using the royal we?) Anyway, it's not trunked yet, but neither is it a priority. It's just waiting for me to love it again.


Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Good luck with your queries! Fingers crossed.

You're right, the trick is to keep the reader guessing. There are so many ways to twist a story that even if you pick the cliche route, it can still be very entertaining. In every romantic comedy, you know the guy and the girl will end up together. The fun is finding out what happens on the way to the happy ending.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Keri! And you're write. It's the same in genre fiction: I know the hero will win, but HOW?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Darn you! Now I have to read this...

*half hour later*

Ok, I thought I was doing the Engineered Public Confession, but it turns out, I was actually using a Secret Test of Character. I would hate TV Tropes if I didn't love it so much.