Craft Chat: Overused Narrative Tropes

April 23, 2020

We’ve all been there: Open Submittable and click on the first assignment for this week, and groan—it’s another ____ story! Inspired by a recent Cathy Ulrich tweet, The Masters Review editors chatted about what narrative tropes we feel are overused, ineffective, or generally hard sells for us.

Cole Meyer: Everyone has a narrative pet peeve, some kind of plot or structural device that makes you groan. So what are those narrative no-goes for you?

Melissa Hinshaw:  I’m glad to see the first one that came to mind listed in the tweet thread you shared (shout out to Cheryl Pappas!): animals dying/moments with animals. You guys see me groan about this all the time in the slush pile, it is my least favorite thing by a long shot. Moody/detached/troubled/frustrated character makes eye contact or has quiet/unexpected moment with animal—we get it, you reconnected to life again, good job, gold star for you, I still reject your story. I’m more interested in what happens once a character has been connected to life. You know how in Les Miserables or the movie Up there’s like, an entire story before the story? How you cry like a little baby when the bishop gives the candlesticks to Jean Valjean or when Ellie collapses in that perfect 3D animation style? Those parts are like a wind-up engine that drives the rest of an entire opus, i.e. another 95% of the content in the following story. Inciting action, is that what it’s called? It’s been a while since I took a narrative structure class. Also, note that in these examples there is actually an action. I don’t know how else to say that holding a dead bird in your hands isn’t really an action. I know, I get confused too, “But she’s holding it, holding is a verb, that’s an action!” Right but what changed? Her heart? Sure okay, but did that put anyone at risk in the story? Oh not yet but it might given what you’ve set us up to see? Great! Then show us that part of the story instead! People are always writing so much “before the story” as story. It’s like revving your engine, but you have to actually go somewhere to make the ride fun.

Philosophically, this eats at me too, because we are so disconnected from nature in today’s day and age we think that looking into a deer’s pupil will forgive us our sins and let us feel our deepest grief. Our metaphors have gotten so tenuous, and they suck as a result. I want to read a good story about someone dying. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze this too much but I think we write stories that slant towards/angle at death and loss and connection via things like animals, etc., because it feels too obvious or overdone to be sad about regular death and loss and connection. But the reason those things get us is because they’re human, because they are overdone in our own lives, our own world, and we still don’t understand them — they are mysteries that we need people to keep exploring and re-exploring to help us understand better, or at least feel more comfortable with (or uncomfortable in the good way, you know what I mean). Good writers will make those things good every single time, and no amount of standing with bloody hands over a fox is going to make you a better writer than just getting better at writing about real human scenes. Ya damn hipsters! The dying forest animal stories were cool for a moment in like 2012-2014 but that time has passed. They started selling owl stuff at Target and Urban Outfitters and that’s how you should have known to get back to your regular writing practice instead.

I feel like I wrote a lot and didn’t say explicitly what I mean: The animal cannot be a placeholder for your plot or action. It can be an echo, a rhythm, something alongside the main plot or action, but it cannot effectively take the place of the main plot or action. If it’s going to be the main plot or action, make it a good exciting one, like a legitimate explicit wild boar hunt or Red Riding Hood and the Wolf fable sort of thing. And don’t, whatever you do, end on a pensive pose of the person having a quiet epiphany with the animal corpse.

Cole: Yes, definitely agree. The animal dying at the end of the story usually to me signals that the author hasn’t done enough work to develop their characters/plot and move toward an actual conflict. I see this echoed in stories where the big climax is a natural disaster. It’s always such a let down when interesting characters are doing interesting things, but instead of a conflict/climax arising naturally out of the friction in their opposing desires, we get a curveball like an earthquake that ultimately doesn’t change anything at all. I was talking to a peer recently about Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and he commented that it’s interesting we talk about the book as a hurricane novel when the storm itself occurs so late in the narrative, and the book is about so much more than the storm. That’s an excellent example of a natural disaster that’s not functioning as the main conflict (and it’s definitely no surprise!) but is instead adding tension and texture to the narrative. (This is my way of saying none of these narratives are really no-goes, but require skill and tact to pull off well.)

That said, I am increasingly tired of reading stories in which a married couple (having marital issues, of course) go on vacation and one or both find new, fleeting romances. I’m not sure what it is about this plot that makes it compelling for so many writers to attempt. It always feels like a writing exercise to me: Take a decaying relationship to an exotic locale and see what happens! I’m sure there are countless examples of this story done well, but it’s one of those plots that feel so obvious and predictable by the time you’ve read the first page.

Brandon Williams: My big pet peeve of late has been the absolutely-unnecessary frame story, especially when it’s just a paragraph or two on either end, or even more frustrating when that reflective narrator dips in out of nowhere for a sentence in the middle of a story and is never seen again. If you’re only going to reference the “present” moment of the story from which your speaker is narrator in the first paragraph and the last or in the first of last but nowhere else, just lop those reflective paragraphs off. If all of the major moments in a story are set in the past moments of the story, that’s awesome, but set it the whole dang story in the past. If we have to see the present moment in order to care about all that stuff in the past, then the past moments need to carry more weight in their own arc. And if we have to see pages and pages of past in order to understand why we started in this moment that only needs a page to complete itself, then that future moment needs to carry so much more narrative weight. If we’re going to have two time periods, that’s totally cool, but make sure there is purpose and conflict in both of them. (Actually, can we just make sure there’s conflict in every story? Similar to Melissa’s concern, I feel like at least part of what I’m talking about here is the process of circling around plot and conflict rather than the actual building of plot and conflict.) Or at the very least, all that reflection and backstory needs to lead our character to something new: a new way of looking at the past moments, a new understanding of who they were then or now, or something to push the narrative and the tension forward.

Cole: Ah, the frame narrative. Admittedly I haven’t read many of these recently, but they’ve always been a hard sell for me. I definitely agree with you—if the frame only serves to introduce us to a present moment that has no bearing on the story, why include it?

Thanks for having this chat with me! I’m looking forward to sharing more of our conversations around craft with our readers.


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