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I've been pondering this a lot just now. After reading and learning about tropes online, rhetoric devices, and all relative things, it's come to my attention that writing seems less of a creative, artistic approach, and more of a rehashing of "standards" or "rules" to which no originality is actually involved.

It's like there're databases of "known rhetorics" of writing (TVTropes.com, etc.) that is presumed to be used "by everyone" and explains all the "tricks and trades" of writing and deduces writing to nothing more than mere rehashing of ideas and "techniques" that have been already known and used.

Given such a thing, I felt immediately disinterested in writing altogether, seeing as I actually never knew of these things and thought good writing was mostly creative and didn't follow already known techniques or anything. I've actually even written stuff before and had absolutely no idea about what tropes were, and I've even done so professionally without knowing this (with good feedback though).

It's like there are these sort of "rules" of fiction or creative writing that I had never known of despite having written stuff. Also, it seems like tropes are used as a means to "reverse engineer" or "decode" written work and deduce work to categorized sequences or ideas and label them for their value.

How can writing truly be creative then? If every single "known" method of writing already exists and is labeled and categorized and named, and nobody can write anything that can fall outside of these lablels, what part of writing is created if it's all driven by already used ideas, rhetoric, and tropes?

It's like writing has been decoded and categorized and there's no way anything can be original or new.

After all, isn't every "new" thing just something that changed a pinch but is still derived from the "standard" of writing, such as tropes, ideas, cliches, etc.? How can I continue to be a writer, especially "creatively," if I now know that anything I write is subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else because my writing is simply deduced to the list of existing standards or techniques I'd never known?

It makes me wonder if I'm supposed to judge by what is written or by written works of deterministic outlook and measure on how the ideas & techniques of its writing were done instead of just the work.

  • 1
    New things can be invented out of not-new components. Let's look at the sentence level: people don't normally invent new words. But using words that already exist and have been used before, people create new sentences all the time. Also, using a "trope" doesn't make something unoriginal. Tvtropes even has a page about this, kind of: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TropesAreTools – aer Sep 22 '15 at 20:29
  • You are thinking much like Spider Robinson in his Melancholy Elephants. (An excellent read.) – hildred Sep 25 '15 at 17:12

11 Answers 11

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Every art form --not just writing --has a body of theory that has developed around it in order to identify patterns. However, no art form can be wholly reduced to a set of rules, or otherwise machines could successfully create creative art.

If you write in a state of nature, unaware of the theories, you may create some things that are entirely original and new, but you might just as likely create things that are tired and cliched because you aren't aware of how many others have done the same thing before you. You may also reach a point where you can't achieve your goals because you haven't developed your technique.

Ideally, your relationship with theory is that you have mastered it to the point where you can create new and original work at the cutting edge of your discipline. However, to get to that point, you may spend a long time traveling in the footsteps of those who came before.

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I think you misunderstand the point of tropes, conventions, and "rules".

The central point is to be aware of them in order to either try and come up with something original (difficult), to know when you can break those rules, or to at least be aware of what has gone before in order to avoid being clichéd in your approach.

As a previous answer noted, you're like a painter, sitting with a blank canvas and a whole array of colours and brushes before you to choose from. There's a massive range of techniques and styles for you to rely on. All other painters have the same colours to choose from. So many painters have done portraits, or landscapes. Does this mean that painting is not creative? Well, if all you want to do is create replicas of other paintings, then yes, that's just formulaic and dull. But if you're aware of what's gone before, this frees you immensely to play with these conventions and rules and techniques to create unique combinations.

So many times, I think I've come up with a great twist or idea, only to discover it's been done before, and better, by someone else. Coming up with an original take on an old idea is exceptionally hard. In fact, most of the time, the story you want to write has already been written. This doesn't mean you shouldn't use this idea, it just means you need to think more carefully about how to convey it. The central difference is how you decide to tell that story, how you stand on the shoulders of giants and play with their techniques and ideas in unusual ways.

This spurs creativity, not hinders it, because it forces you to rethink your ideas, to dig deeper in trying to come up with a different way of telling the same story, to play tricks on readers by not always doing what is expected. That is where true creativity lies.

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A few quotes from Charlie Kaufman:

"I don't know what the hell a third act is."

From an interview about his film Synecdoche, New York. "I don't know what's going on there."

You see, the tropes and rules are there. But you don't have to know about them or use them. And if you learn them, you can break their structure, to create something completely original. In fact, that's the whole point of learning the rules: to break them.

2

Strange and Norrell: Have you ever read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? In the book, Strange and Norrell are magicians that seek to restore magic to England. Norrell believes in books and well-defined algorithms that can be put to work to solve every imaginable problem. He believes that magic is complete and all a magician should do is to look up the right "recipe" for his specific problem. Strange believes in intuition. He is not content with Norrell's rules and regularly breaks them to uncover new ways. Turns out, though, that these new ways are not necessarily new - magicians of older ages used to travel them regularly.

Art and science: Why do I tell you this? Because for me, this conflict between the Strangite and the Norrelite approach to magic is at the heart of how we perceive both art and science. As a scientist who happens to write fiction, I know both sides of the medal: the scrutinising, thorough side of the scientist that measures and categorizes and puts into order and melds into formulas. Science needs to be transparent and reproducable. It is crucial that a scientist tells you exactly how he conducted his work. We need names for everything, and if something doesn't have a name yet, we think very long and very hard and come up with a one. The other side: Intuitive, much less conscious - art that simply seeks to express something, stir emotions, touch its audience. Art is not about conveying information. It is about feelings. In that sense, it seems to be the opposite of the scientific approach. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is foolish to completely discard one of these two approaches. Creativeness needs order to be put into good use. Science depends on creativeness to come up with the right questions.

Regarding your question, my feeling is that you worry too much. As a storyteller, you are an adventurer. So what, if other people have wandered the paths you are exploring right now? Thousands and thousands of people have been to the Hagia Sophia, or to Cape Hoorn. Does it take away from the experience? Does it diminish your experience? I would be very surprised, if you were not touched or impressed by Cape Hoorn, just because you are not the first one to go there.

Here's to changes: Apart from this, as you tagged this under "philosophy", I am convinced that language - and thus the art of it, be it rhetorics in general or creative writing - is never complete. Language changes, and so does the way we perceive written and oral art. Obviously, if you stick to all the rules, you will never contribute to these changes.

And why being put off by the mere possibility that your audience might judge your work by standards that you are not even familiar with? This, after all, is what happens to art all the time. Take Goethe and Shakespeare. These two would probably be lost in today's world, and yet we measure their work by our standards. Still, Macbeth and Faust are great works of literature, almost everybody agrees on that, and I honestly can't imagine Goethe being worried about some future readers of his not getting the genius of his work. After all, what can happen, if your audience is not familiar with the rules you applied to your work, be they social, formal, or of any other kind? Possibility 1: They turn away from your work, because they believe that they can not, under any circumstances, understand it. Bad luck there. Or, possibility 2, and that's what happens in pretty much every fantasy novel: They accept your rules and agree to be educated about them by you, the writer. And who knows - maybe, if your rules are good and make sense to them, they will incorporate them in their own lives.

Plus, people are not stupid, and you are not the only rebel. There's always conservatives on the one hand and the curious on the other - Norrellites and Strangites.

Conclusion: So: Bend the rules. Break them, if you wish to. If your concept is solid and your work self-consistent, people will notice and accept it. Mind, this might not be the majority. But let's be honest: The majority is the audience of main stream art, and main stream these days seems to translate into entertainment. Entertainment doesn't usually seek to challenge, entertainment doesn't want to be unexpected. Entertainment abides by the rules, and that's perfectly fine. It is, however, your decision whether you want to be an entertainer or an explorer.

In any case, it can't hurt to know the rules. Only a very careless - no, let's face it: a very stupid - explorer would set out without accumulating all the existing knowledge about his expedition beforehand: Maps, knowledge about indigenous tribes, about the climate, flora, fauna, diseases. But if something unexpected occurs, something that fall outside of the jurisdiction of the existing rules - and that's bound to happen, it's an expedition, after all -, he is ready to come up with solutions.

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Creative writing isn't inventing something new. It is writing in such a way as to keep your reader's attention.Writers aren't re-inventing the wheel. They are painting it a different color.

If this isn't what you want it's because you aren't a writer.

  • I disagree. As a writer, I don't retell the stories I already know. Personally, I seek to explore situations that are foreign to me. Of course, there's bound to be stories about the same topic around, but I don't know these stories, or if I do, I tell my story about a different aspect. So subjectively, if a story is a whell, I DO invent my own wheel. But I sure have some tools at hand that I can use, nails, hammers, possibly the knowledge of how to bend wood. – Filip Sep 23 '15 at 8:32
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    -1. The judgmental tone of the last sentence really weakens what could be an interesting and legitimate answer (if you developed and explained the first part a little more). – Chris Sunami Sep 24 '15 at 16:23
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Honestly, your comment reads as if every author has gone to use these tropes found on TVTropes, and that is a lie. Tropes are found similarities among stories, not some writer's guide to writing stories. Stop over-thinking it and enjoy writing. Nobody is caring, people love the book, movie, comic book, and many other fictional pieces of work for what the author did.

When Rick Riordan first published his Percy Jackson series, were people upset over the fact Percy Jackson and Harry Potter were basically the same characters?

When Divergent first got published, was the readers upset with glaring parallels to the Hunger Games?

I think no.

Stop over thinking it, use TVTropes to piece together a character, but your character isn't well-defined yet. Use TVTropes to your advantage.

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Tropes exist ... the same way internet memes exist; UFOs exist; paranormal activity exists; and the boogeyman exists too. The fact is, ground rules are usually established under some sort of pretense that they'll help in the making or recording of a trade or category. The real issue is, some things are really hard to have "rules" because they can be very hard to be brought back to some sort of "initiation phase" or starting point. Writing is one thing that's very hard to "rule" because anybody could come up with something creative and it doesn't have to be deduced to any principal or standard for people to just "like it." You can take examples in those "dumb" parody films that the majority seem to hate, but an established amount of people still seem to take interest in and profit the low-end quality for more films.

Also, take examples at laws in many countries and how vague some things actually can be.

The real problem is, the more complicated and unspecific something can be, the harder it is to carry it back to some sort of starting point. Try reverse engineering quantum mechanics with string theory, or convert a Hanzi script sentence to Latin scripture by hand without reference. Writing, being an art, is also much harder to take back to an established principal since art is not necessarily built from anything which can be taken apart easily, much like, say, a tower of blocks or a deck of cards.

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A "trope" is a made-up buzzword that seeks to only explain the meta-process of writing, put simply.

Put in more details, the "trope" can be viewed as the meta-meta of the work -- the idea of the ideas of how the ideas are made. Trope -> Writer-> Work; Meta-> Meta-> Work. They exist to attempt to "define" a principle of writing when, of course, like anything, such principles are not always true, correct, or useful; instead, it's a tool of the information age -- to have information about information ... about information ... and so on. The trope isn't necessarily the cliche because it's believed to be the "start" of writing; the ground principles; the

It's supposed to be a tool, but the writing process doesn't need tools; it just needs something written, and if, however that thing may be written, it is not to be judged solely by a forthright, underlying method alone; it should be judged by the written work and how it's perceived ... not stripped by certain believed principles and factionalized as it's some sort of disseminated quantification of a larger puzzle.

Being specifically centered around ideas and storylines, it's just a way for people to categorize things; it's also for know-it-alls to like to feel they have control over what's dished on them on the TV or internet or game or book or whatever it may be. In other words, it's like the cloud computing fad where people believe that "the cloud" organizes and stores data conveniently for people to access it from anywhere, when data has been done so always and people have been accessing it the same way.

Look at it this way: If I can "know" what the writer is supposedly trying to get me to "know" or see, it's like meta-opinions; an opinion formed about the opinion formed of the person using the so-called "trope" that is based on the rhetoric or "capture method" used to engage or surprise an audience.

If I can guess what someone is attempting to get more to know, I am knowing about what's intended to be known -- a meta viewpoint -- which is seeking to see information about the information of a topic.

The reality? Don't always believe everything and everything isn't the same -- and categorizing data and making everything you see capable of being disseminated by limited rules makes life ... boring.

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I find it interesting that Don Roble's answer above is the least insightful, yet has the most upvotes. I also find it a bit insulting to state that someone isn't a writer because they don't believe what you think makes them a writer; after all, the "outliers" can be and often are the ones who challenge "rules."

The truth is, all writing doesn't have to be creative; there are plenty of writers that don't even need to worry about these so-called "rules" because they could be technical writers, blog writers, etc.

The aforementioned writers don't really need to follow any "hardcoded" rules, and, subsequently, you don't have to either. Interestingly, as a writer, one of the best things (and possibly the worst things) is that writing is something you can't really become much better at, in my view. I believe people can improve grammar, wording, etc., but the immeasurable brilliance and uniqueness of a great story is something not fabricated solely from pre-defined "rules" or anything overviewed beforehand.

Like an artist paints a picture, surely we can see there is only an infinite amount of colors or patterns of anything, etc. Does that make something uncreative? Definitely not. Creativity is not measurable -- is not necessarily taught -- cannot necessarily be taught -- and isn't something everybody has well.

Some people can read all those "rules" or tropes or whatever, write for years, and they still may never write something very good (however defined) -- that's just how it is. Maybe fiction writing is something you can do marvelously well because you just are naturally good at putting words and symbolisms, ideas, and expressions together that captivate a good deal of people, but you do so without knowing, caring, or accepting the "rules." There's literally nothing wrong with that, after all. Would anyone shun someone who can do something exceptionally well if they claimed they never started from "rules?"

I think not many would. The point is, if you did it and you got good feedback, keep doing it and ignore the rules, because even without knowing the supposed "tricks of the trade" you still did well, right?

Well, keep doing it and try not to worry much. Creativity cannot be learned, so forcing yourself to learn a rule or set of formulated ideas will not assure you to be a good writer -- writing well as you do will.

  • If you disagree with another answer, the proper thing to do is to downvote it (once you have enough reputation), ideally with a comment stating why. It weakens your own answer to frame it primarily as a reply to someone else. – Chris Sunami Sep 24 '15 at 16:21
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I will add my eight cents:

Writing is an art. It is. Regardless of what you write, or how it's written, creative writing is always creative. A trope is merely a buzzword used by people who want to feel smarter and better than others and superior; that want to act like they know something before it's possible to know it; to be conceited.

The idea behind the trope is that one can believe to accurately guess what is going to happen before it; a preconceived opinion; a meta-opinion; a desire to feel smart and involved. It is pathetic at best.

Real writers know that writing itself is the art, and nothing but passion and interest drives that writing ... not money ... not rules ... not standards ... not others ... just passion. That is truly what art is.

I, however, agree most with Second Mind and Tired Gonza's answers.

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Sure, there are a finite number of plots. One of my instructors claimed that there were two: (a) the character goes on a journey and (b) a stranger comes to town. It occurs to me that these are the same plot, from different points of view. So we might say that there's just one plot. (The journey/visit can be actual or metaphorical.)

Whether we believe that or not, the point is that creativity is not in coming up with a a new plot or story. Creativity, in my opinion, occurs in the telling. Create a unique voice. Tell a story we've all heard before in the way that only your unique narrator can tell it.

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