indiana jones and a defense of tropes

by - 11/07/2017

I've been thinking about storytelling tropes a lot lately. I understand why it's a scary word that you shy away from, and why we're at a place where movies/books/shows are lauded for breaking the mold and subverting those tropes. There are certain aspects of storytelling that we've beaten until they're nothing but dead and tired cliches that weaken your story instead of making it more solid. Stories that can find new and interesting approaches to what we've come to expect are usually a win in my book. But the more I analyze stories (i'm not a nerd, you're a nerd) and pick them apart and try to figure out what makes them tick, the more I've started to actually think about why some storytelling devices are so iconic. Why are certain things still popping up even though we all come to expect them? Why are we still stuck on the "you're just like me, really" speech from the villain even though every movie in the history of ever has used an identical bit of dialogue? This sort of thing is a theme that keeps popping up to me the more I examine some iconic films and books (and new ones, too), and I'm starting to suspect that maybe the answer to writing some fresh and interesting stories isn't to completely trash every trope in the book and turn it on its head. 

Maybe... there's a reason why tropes are tropes. 

Maybe there's a reason why they stick with us. 

Over the weekend, as part of my "watch a film I've never seen before every Sunday night" campaign to educate myself in the world of iconic stories, I finally sat down and watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Spoiler alert, I liked it quite a lot.) Before I began, I pulled out the notebook I've been using to take notes while I watch these movies, and I wrote down some questions I wanted to explore and pay attention to while I watched. One of those questions was "Why is this movie such a successful classic?" When I wrote it down, I didn't think about it too much, but as I went through the next two hours I was surprised by how much I ended coming back to that particular question. (if you haven't seen this movie by now, you really should, by the way. It's genuinely delightful.)

This movie isn't just a good one -- it's one that's inherently satisfying to watch, whether you can explain it or not. (I don't know that I can yet.) There's something about it that you have to find entertaining, and while a lot of that is due to fantastic music/Harrison Ford/solid dialogue and a tight plot/interesting concepts, I think one of the things that makes it so successful is that it successfully uses tropes to make it a more solid and satisfying story

Tropes and cliches make us flinch -- if you mention it, we'll steer our story in the other direction. We won't do that thing "because everyone does it!" But more and more what I've been asking myself is why certain things keep popping up in our stories and themes even when we try to avoid them or don't consciously think about it, and I think that's because there's something that rings true in all of these cliches. Whether we acknowledge it or not, something about these elements is a part of how we think and act and approach life, and something in us wants to keep coming back to them. 

That might not be a bad thing. 
Image result for raiders of the lost ark gif
harrison ford definitely doesn't hurt things, though.

Indiana Jones is solid for a heaping handful of reasons. Something in it strikes a chord, and that could very well be partly because it utilizes tropes in a way that rings true in all of us. Like it or not, there's something deeply satisfying in watching a grim-faced action hero run from danger. There's something we like about watching the morally upright dude fight the bad guys and save the girl. There's something deeply fun and deeply true and deeply enjoyable in female characters who are badass but also feminine, who succeed in their own ways instead of being matched up against the men. Where some movies use these moments in a tired way, Indiana Jones uses a combination of unique scenarios and good characters to use them for an interesting story. They make things better, rather than devolving into a mess.

The key isn't in avoiding tropes, maybe. The key is in making sure the rest of your story stands -- are your characters good? (Good characters will carry anything.) Is your setting unique? Does the concept stand out? Once you have a good foundation, you can use tropes and ~cliches~ as tools to speak to us and make a story more satisfying, rather than using them as the crutch for the whole story. They're just aspects, not the whole thing. They fall apart and become tired when you try to make the tropes themselves the interesting parts. 

I could also just be rambling. Who knows. This is what happens when I watch movies. 

I'll just be over here in the corner this NaNo season, maybe, watching good movies and suggesting that maybe we shouldn't go out of our way to avoid all tropes and cliches etc ever. Maybe we should just make sure the rest of our story is good.

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  1. I was going to write a similar post about Stranger Things, sometimes the tropes work. Love Indiana Jones!

  2. I watched Indiana Jones for the first time a couple of months ago...even though it wasn't my favorite I could definitely appreciate a lot of things about it.

  3. I really enjoy analyzing and looking for different tropes in fiction. I think it's extremely interesting to track how a certain trope or archetype had evolved over the years or to draw parallels between the literature I enjoy and the cartoons I watch. Obviously there are some things that are overused and ineffective, but like you said, there's a reason certain character types, themes, and plot devices have shown up in different forms ever since stories and literature started developing.

  4. This is the best point ever wow bless you.

  5. Another great and thought-provoking post. Keep on going, I love it! :)


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