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February, 2007 : Feature:

Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story

Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope is a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature, let us start with a definition:

In literature, a trope is a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that permeates a particular type of literature. They are usually tied heavily to genre. For example, tropes in horror literature and film include the mad scientist or a dark and stormy night. Tropes can also be plots or events, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
( (literature))

The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.

When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived—in recent times famously exemplified by critic Dave Truesdale's emphatic rejection of the Karen Joy Fowler story, "What I Didn't See" (2002) (1, 2). For readers who find confessional narrative self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical fiction may strike them as dishonest; for readers who prefer their fiction a step away from memoir, anything that cloaks the story in the kind of tropes used in science fiction and fantasy will be too far away from reality for them to be interesting. The transmissibility of story is dependent on an acceptance of those tropes.

We've written before about Samuel R. Delany's concept of reading protocols and what Gardner Dozois calls "the furniture of science fiction" (3, 4). To simplify, protocols are the experiences and assumptions that a reader brings to a genre work—the shorthand that enables understanding without repeated explication. "Furniture" refers to the signifiers for these protocols—the standard props and elements that characterize a genre. These concepts are closely tied together and work in concert with each other.

For example, a science fiction writer might use the term "FTL." A reader with even the most modest experience in science fiction will understand this to mean "faster than light," and most will be conversant with the basics of Einsteinian physics and the implications of supraluminal travel. A reader with no experience in science fiction might well not even be able to parse the acronym. Those who look up the term and find out what it stands for may still lack the theoretical background to understand the implications a regular reader of science fiction will immediately comprehend.

In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.

One thing that distinguishes genre fiction from naturalistic fiction is that these shared tropes are a result of specific, self-selected reading experiences, rather than coming from the normal course of life in the culture where the story is set. Philip Roth doesn't have to explain the details of Alexander Portnoy's life; he merely cites them.

Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer's innovation within the story at hand.

While every genre has tropes, including mainstream and literary, the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are for the most part unconcerned with the emotional dimension of the story. Where character-driven tropes such the epiphanic event or the emotional framework of marital infidelity are broadly recognized in mainstream and literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy concern themselves first and foremost with the variation between the first world of the reader's experience and the second world constructed within the story. These are mechanical, technological, magical, even sociopolitical elements—for example, romanticized feudalism in fantasy, or technocracy in science fiction—far more often than they are internal or emotional: plot and setting-driven tropes, rather than character-driven. Even the character-driven tropes our field does embrace at times tend towards the emotionally superficial—clouded succession to power, romanticization of certain roles (the scientist-as-hero), standard archetypes such the Dark Lord Brooding on His Obsidian Throne.

Examples of this distancing effect in genre abound, especially in the earlier history of the field. Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (1951) is famously clinical in its approach to characters and their stories, focusing instead on the concept of future history, which was established as a core trope in the field, in large part due to Asimov's work. Other major works in science fiction where the genre tropes intrude on the emotional experience of the story include Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and its successor books. The fantastically realized world-building and sociopolitical gymnastics which are the core joy of that book to millions of readers are combined with characters who are either archetypical or depthless, depending on how one chooses to view the text, but in either case, are not readily viewed as rounded, emotional human beings.

On the other hand, any story strongly felt can use genre tropes to its advantage, creating gut-wrenching emotional experience on the page as effective or more so than some of the reputedly literary examples of pseudo-fictional self-flagellation. One of the most famous short stories of post-WWII science fiction is "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding magazine in August, 1954. The emotional impact of this story is so profound, echoing across the decades since, largely because it inverts the scientist-as-hero trope to conform to the stark realities of engineering in a deconstruction of the same classic SF tradition that produced such classics as Foundation.

The transmissibility of story itself is not a function of these emotional transactions, however—with perhaps the exception of such genres as romance, which demand the emotional dimension through their very nature and definition. The intention and realization of story moves from the writer to the reader through the tropes of genre—naturalistic fiction no less than science fiction or fantasy, taking here the word "genre" in its looser sense of meaning. Even naturalistic fiction has its tropes: coming-of-age plots, familiar setting, and firm grounding in a recognizable cultural context. Story happens in the context of the shared expectations of writer and reader, and the controlled management (or violation) of those expectations during the course of the narrative.

The themes of genres vary widely as well. The story of epiphany, for example, is a strong thread in twentieth century naturalistic fiction beginning with James Joyce's classic The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and continuing with various related forms of self-revelatory and semi-autobiographical fiction such as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963). In this tradition we could also count the consciousness-raising novels of the women's liberation movement in the seventies, such as Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972) and Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1978). Of course, only a small percentage of mainstream and literary fiction is fictional self-examination of this sort, but it is interesting to note that this particular impulse is almost non-existent in science fiction and fantasy.

Our genre has not in general been so concerned with emotionally revelatory writing, certainly not autobiographical or semi-autobiographical revelation. There is a thread of stories built on a strong emotional dimension—novels such as John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), for example, or Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968), or short stories such as David Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" (2003)—but more often than not the genre-related tropes seem to be more important than the emotional underpinnings.

This is not to say that the emotional structure of speculative fiction is suppressed or deprecated, only that it serves the foreground concerns of genre. Often the emotional transaction can come along for the ride rather than serving as the core driver of the story. Due to the primary payout of the genre experience—the exploration of the second world developed by the author, with the attendant thrill of discovery and sensawunda—few stories in science fiction and fantasy are written to be epiphanic or emotionally revelatory. Rather, they address some aspect of the tropes of the genre, using emotionality as an optional tool to reach their point. Many of the strongest examples of the genre, however, do go the extra step and explore the emotional dimension of their subject.

It is interesting to note that a number of genre novels with a greater emotional underpinning appeared during and after the New Wave, when many of the elements of literary fiction were adopted by science fiction and fantasy writers. Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) stands out in this regard, as do the novels mentioned previously such as Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Michel Faber's Under the Skin (2000), Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and alien body snatcher stories. Excellent as these books are, those expectations are not met in them.

The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story—and the reader—are functioning.


  1. Referenced and [back]
  2. [back]
  3. [back]
  4. Dozois, in conversation. [back]

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York, NY: Gnome Press Publishers, 1951.

Bakis, Kirstin. Lives of the Monster Dogs. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Girouxm, 1997.

Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1968.

Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1981.

French, Marilyn. The Women's Room. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Faber, Michel. Under the Skin. Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate, 2000.

Fowler, Karen Joy. "What I Didn't See." SCI FICTION, July, 2002.

Godwin, Tom. "The Cold Equations." Astounding, August, 1954.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Books, 1965.

Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York, NY: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York, NY: Walker and Company, 1969.

Levine, David. "The Tale of the Golden Eagle." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2003.

Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler's Wife. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam, Cage, 2003.

Piercy, Marge. Small Changes. New York, NY: Fawcett Crest, 1972.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar (1963). New York, NY: Bantam, 1972.

Roth, Philip. Portnoy's Complaint. New York, NY: Random House, 1969.

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York, NY: Villard Books/Random House, 1996.

Copyright © 2007, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Feb 7, 21:24 by IROSF
A thread to Ruth and Jay's latest column. Did it transmiss to you?

The article can be found here.
Feb 7, 23:15 by Gus Raley
An extensive collection of speculative fiction tropes is available among the other 5000 or so tropes cataloged by the TV Tropes fanatics. Worth a peek.
Feb 8, 03:22 by Paul Gilbert
That's nicely written. "Trope", huh? I'm happy to have a word for the bugbear I wrestle for balance with most every day. :)
Feb 8, 11:05 by Josh English
I've understood tropes to be negatives in writing, not a shared vocabulary. I suppose there's a difference between the reasons people read differing genres. Romance readers expect the same story (with variations) and lit readers expect an emotional connection, so they can read the same plot and not be disappointed. Science fiction, being more idea-based, runs afoul of over used tropes, like the Adam & Eve trope.
Feb 8, 15:23 by Daniel M. Kimmel
That's the difference between a trope and a cliche. Robots and androids and other forms of man-created "life" comprise a hardy SF trope. A story about the creation turning on its creator is a cliche.
Feb 9, 04:57 by Dominique Benoit
A wonderful article. I've often been frustrated at Margaret Atwood's violent denial that she wrote science fiction story, even though The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake cannot be anything but.

You've clarified beautifully the rationalization of denying the genre.
Feb 10, 01:23 by John Clute
Well and mildly put, I thought.

Very happy to see a checklist with almost no MLA-derived errors in bibliographical method (only glitch was to list The Left Hand of Darkness[/] as being published by Walker, when the first edition was from Ace Books (the Walker hb followed the Ace later the same year). I think a journal about sf, whose works are so deeply contextual in terms of time and place (kind of what you're saying here in any case), should be really careful to get original publication data exactly right.
One minor demur: I think Michel Faber's Under the Skin[/] -- you list the first edition correctly here, even though it's paperback . . ., good -- is deliberately[/] alienated from the tropes whose underlying operation we recognize in order to understand the story at all (some mainline reviews kind of botched the whole thing through ignorance of that underpinning). Faber clearly knows sf; his novel is a subversion (of sorts) from a position of knowledge. The novel is an internal exile, not an interloper.
Feb 11, 22:10 by Joe Prisco
Nice to see Mr Clute here; thanks to his book, I read some things I might not have otherwise.

Ruth and Jay have hit nicely upon a personal issue of mine -- i.e., why do I not easily write in the genre that inspired me in the first place? Perhaps it's because it was the (apparently atypical) emotional epiphanies that impressed me most -- Blish's A CASE OF CONSCIENCE; Silverberg's DYING INSIDE; Dick's THREE STIGMATA; Larry Niven's PROTECTOR ... even Asimov's FOUNDATION had some emotion to it. In the eyes of many, I suppose, that might mean I'm not a 'true' s.f. fan.

Still: the tropes. Yup, you can't have SF without at least a nod to them; even sociological treatises like Biggle's STILL SMALL SOUND OF TRUMPETS or the Robert Randall books made sure an SF fan could recognize them as their own. When we ask "What is SF?", the answer may have more to do with the presumed expectations of the reader than any one detail of plot or theme.
Feb 15, 11:55 by Allan Rosewarne
I've not read the essay by Jay and Ruth yet; however, recently while in a discussion with some friends, I said tropes are not always bad, in my opinion they help to establish the protocols of reading required for the text under consideration or examination. For example, energy weapons are a SFnal trope, reading about them in a text establishes the protocol for reading the SFnal text at ones hand.

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