Puttin’ on the Tropes

Romance authors get a lot of grief over the use of recognizable plot devices – tropes. You know the kind of thing – the fake engagement, the secret baby, the ugly duckling. Billionaires! Sheikhs! Cowboys! Billionaire cowboy sheikhs!

The first definition for trope in both the online Merriam-Webster and Oxford American English dictionaries is (essentially) the figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.

The second definition in Oxford is a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

In Merriam-Webster? A common or overused theme or device : cliché

Dude. Way harsh.

What the critics – and Merriam-Webster apparently – fail to acknowledge is that dedicated readers of romance novels not only accept tropes, they actively seek out their favorites. Tropes are like a secret handshake between the author and the reader; a sly wink that says we understand one another.

Not only that, but tropes are a way of conveying a cultural context. A trope carries its own definition, a whole frame of reference that can be built into a story and comment on it at the same time that it utilizes it and (we hope) extends it.

Let’s take a non-literary trope: Fred Astaire and the Irving Berlin song he performed in Blue Skies. Rhythmically complex, the syncopated Puttin’ on the Ritz (with lyrics revised by Berlin for the movie) became a metaphor for Astaire himself.

He mastered Berlin’s complicated rhythms and overlaid them with the effortless skill of his tapping. No matter how many “Astaires” back him in that last chorus line, there’s really only one Fred. The epitome of smooth sophistication. The pinnacle of dance mastery.

We can take the dance out of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” equation, but the subtext is still there. Take this attempt by P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (as portrayed by Hugh Laurie):

Bertie, born into money and society, is never quite able to master its intricacies. He can never achieve the level of sophistication that Fred managed with such ease – he doesn’t understand the complexity (abstracted out as the syncopation of the song) at a basic level and needs Jeeves to translate for him.

In Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, when Frederick Frankenstein needs a way to prove the humanity of his misunderstood Creature, he picks this song and dance.

We know how high Frederick is aiming – that’s the point. If the Creature can deliver that number, the ultimate in civilization, Frederick will have proved the worth of his work. But nobody can touch Astaire, and the mastery is beyond the poor Creature’s reach, just as it was beyond Bertie’s.

Sometimes, though, the attempt to reach that pinnacle is the whole point. Season ten of So You Think You Can Dance, the reality show that pits young dancers against their own skill and the audience’s sentiment in the attempt to become – not the best, but the favorite – dancer, casts “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with a hip-hop dance vernacular to kick off the competition.
Is any of these a better use of the Berlin song than the others? It’s a matter of opinion. Subjective, based on the viewer’s preferences – just as whether a romance reader prefers billionaires to cowboys, or ugly ducklings to fake engagements.

Each of these uses what we know about the number – the weight of its tradition – to tell the story. Each story is different, even if the trope is the same. We can enjoy each for its own sake, while sharing in that wink, that handshake.

We understand one other.

It makes the journey all the sweeter.