A Trope by Any Other Name Would be a Device, Right?

Miss Clairon in Medea
Miss Clairon in Medea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve thought I was stupid or had skipped most of the six years I spent in college. Tropes are mentioned everywhere when I read discussions about books online. I can’t recall having heard of them so maybe I did forget something, but the usage has changed over time.  This is how I see tropes, and what I think is happening with them. I’m not sure if I am seeing it all correctly; it’s a confusing term.


Meriram-Webster’s Online Dictionary has this definition


Trope: a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect
Full Definition of TROPE
1 a : a word or expression used in a figurative sense : figure of speech
b : a common or overused theme or device : cliché

2: a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages



And Wikipedia  says

A literary trope is the use of figurative language — via word, phrase, or even an image — for artistic effect[1] such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices,[2] motifs or cliches in creative works. Wikipedia

(The Wikipedia article goes on go on to show a category called Fantasy tropes. Since I began the blog with fantasy literature’s paranormal romance sub-genre, this caught my eye:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_tropes_and_conventions, and this: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RomanceNovelTropes)

Trope has come to mean “recurring literary themes, motifs and devices.”   And  labeling things tropes in romance and fantasy go even farther, I think, to become thematic and the basis for plots instead of just figurative language, cliches or devices used in telling the story.  Originally, apparently according to Language gets blasted by a ‘trope’-ical storm tropes were originally figures of speech and only recently have been expanded upon to include repetitively used literary devices.  They’re like shorthand for these themes and/or plots allowing  a writer to skip defining or explaining certain things, or they have become emblematic of a certain concept.  I think plots and themes are being taken over by tropes.

For example a theme in many plots in fantasy seem to rely on archetypes like “The Hero/Heroine’s Quest.”  The archetype fills in the blank on what we would expect the hero/ine to face in their quest. Another might be “Robbing the dragon of his/her hoard.” You might even combine more than one trope in a story:  The hero’s quest could include stealing the dragon’s hoard. The figure of speech itself is not necessarily used anymore, it is the concept that has become the trope.

In romance it might be “the damaged duke” which provides the shorthand for understanding the British nobility and marriage.   It also tells us certain things about what the character is probably like depending on the nature of his damage. Unfortunately, overuse of tropes seems like an easy way out for a  romance novelist, or a way of capitalizing on another writer’s success.  In contemporary romance I point to the CEO/Million or Billionaire meets Virginal Ingenue.  While this certainly wasn’t invented by E.L. James of Fifty Shades fame, it was her book series that insured that every fifth book I was sent over the past two years had that theme.  That theme has become a trope.  And, it morphs into the basis for the story’s major plot points.

Jason and Medea, 1759 (oil on canvas)
Jason and Medea, 1759 (oil on canvas) In this case the Deus Ex machina is the chariot which is carrying Medea away from the scene of her crime.
Charles-André van Loo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Another kind of trope has a longer history use:  right out of ancient Greek plays.
In the Greek Tragedy, Medea, after killing her children, as a woman wronged receives sympathy and, instead of facing her punishment, is rescued by a deus ex machina  — god from the machine,.  This device, was a god who would swoop down and grab the character from whatever morass in which they found themselves. This was a device in literature and, in the theater I believe was sometimes an actual device.  As you see in the paintings themed on Medea she is being carried away in a chariot.  I can’t think of another literary device that is so easy to describe and find a graphic for.

In an Ancient Greek play, where the mythological gods were humanoid and interacted a lot with humans, this theme made sense in a cultural context. Yet, if we were to see a god swoop down in a book or play today, we would look at it as the character’s delusion or a symbolic rescue (most interactions with gods or other supes are seen this way outside of paranormal or speculative fiction genres).    Nowadays the term “deus ex machina” is often a device used by a writer to get themselves out of a corner.

In some romances, I have previously posited (HERE)  that the Deus Ex Machina has become  “Fetus Ex Machina” where the female love interest becoming pregnant secures the male’s affection and commitment. That is, in an romance requiring a happily ever after ending but where the male is honorable, loves the woman but is commitment phobic, a baby or the woman being in mortal danger, breaks through his fences and makes him realize all he wants is the woman and, if it is the case, the child. This is becoming so overused I almost won’t read the story if the baby saves the relationship. It’s trope abuse.

Other tropes, as  literary devices, are red herrings, plot twists and cliff hangers. In these usages neither the theme or motif is not dependent on the device.  The trope is just part of how the story gets told. Red Herrings, I read today, came from the practice of storing decoys for dog training with the smoked herrings. The decoy would absorb the smell and the dog would be attracted to it.

So, a trope used to be called a phrase used figuratively: One example is a quote from the president’s chief of staff being referred to as a quote from the White House. But the definition has expanded to include what they say above in Wikipedia and Websters.

Language changes, and so do expectations. The use of tropes can be a form of literary shorthand that seems to be taking over the job of the plot,  or it can be a device.  We kind of expect them to be there, and if the writer fails to employ them we’ll feel there is too much explained.  But, overuse of particular tropes, due to market considerations or fashion of the day, leads to a feeling of having read the entire book over and over again.

What do you think? 
Is the word being abused?
Do I have it wrong?  Because I still get confused and love to be educated – I am working on my humility.
What tropes do you think are being used to death?