Tropes are not bad: The Parable of the Sculptor

by Tom Ingram

A sculptor laid out his tools in front of a blank block of marble. He closed his eyes and envisioned the finished product. He wanted to carve a bust of Pallas. Why not? They’re all the rage these days, and he could sculpt like no other, creating a truly unrivalled Athena. He set to work carving, and within a few hours he had a beautiful sculpture. He gave it to a museum to display, but they rejected the piece. The letter from the curator said that marble sculptures were tired and cliched. They were looking for pieces carved from new, exciting materials like thorium.

The sculptor, not one to be easily rebuffed, put on his best HAZMAT suit and started carving a new sculpture from thorium. The new sculpture was just like the old one, only with a silvery metallic colour, and the inconvenient habit of causing anyone who directly touched it to grow a third arm. The sculptor sent this one in, too, but received it back with another letter from the curator. This letter, written in very shaky handwriting, said that he liked the artistic statement the sculpture made, but it doesn’t demonstrate new horizons in the craft of sculpting. It uses the same old techniques that everyone’s been using for hundreds of years. The letter suggested that the sculptor try something innovative.

He went back to his studio and started with a new block of thorium, only this time he substituted a cheap cordless power drill and a butter knife for his usual carving tools. It took quite a bit of time, but he finally got the sculpture just right. He crossed his fingers and sent the new piece in for evaluation. The same curator wrote back and said he liked the piece, but isn’t it a little uncreative interpreting Pallas Athena as a human? How simplistic a view of a beautiful religion! The piece was sent back.

The sculptor, too frustrated to start a new piece, took his trusty butter knife and carved more into the existing thorium statue, creating a bizarre abstract shape that he considered representative of the concepts of wisdom, strength, and virginity. This was perfect. It was made out of an interesting and potentially dangerous material, carved with new techniques, and it gave a more complex, less cartoony form to the godess Athena. Surely this would make it into the museum. He sent it in, but the curator wrote back again. Yes, indeed, the piece had all those wonderful qualities, but it was an ugly bastard.

I was reading this article about TV Tropes the other day. The comment made by the screenwriting, Robert McKee, expert near the end struck me as bizarre. For the record, he said:

Let’s say you’re writing a horror film, you click on ‘horror’–the ‘abandoned hospital’, the ‘abandoned playground,’ an ‘ancient tomb’. I would make certain that none of these are in my movie.

In other words, if it’s been done before, there’s no sense doing it again. Tropes are bad. This is true to an extent. Obviously wholesale stealing of plots is not something to be encouraged, but the idea that you should never ever draw influence from other works and use tropes that have been used before is ridiculous. Personally, I don’t know much about the making of movies, but I would think that the qualities of a good movie are good writing, good acting, and good cinematography, not the absence of abandoned hospitals. Just the same way a good song depends on technical skill, emotion, tone quality, and composition rather than the colour of the bass player’s shirt.

Removing all tropes that are not 100% brand-new from a movie is like building a sculpture out of thorium. Sure, it’s innovative, but it’s difficult, hazardous, and above all, ugly. Tropes, like marble, work because they’re tried and true. People recognize them, people like them, and they’ve been proven to fit well into stories. Experimenting with existing tropes and creating new ones is an admirable goal, but I resent the implication that it’s the only option for all fiction all the time. If everything were derivative and redundant, fiction would be boring. But the same is true if everything came out of left field.