Tropes in Literature #2: This is My Story

 Tropes can be our enemies or our friends.  These literary devices, characters types, and plot elements are so common and popular that they often seem clich├ęd.  As I said in my first post on the topic (Mr. Exposition and Captain Obvious), I don't believe that you should never use tropes.  They're popular for a reason.  But I think it's important to be aware of them so that you can choose carefully which ones to use, which to avoid—and which to subvert.  

This is My Story brilliantly collects, links, and names many TV and literature tropes, and this is one of their best descriptions, cleverly using the trope itself: This is My Story.  I highly recommend reading it yourself,

The trope involves opening your story with something like this:  "My name is John Smith.  My story is important because blah blah blah."  Or, "You won't believe this story, but it's mine, and it's true."  Or, "Everything you've heard about me is wrong, so I'm going to tell you this story to set the record straight."  Or, "This is the blah-blahest story you'll ever hear." Or, "My name is blah blah and I'm famous for blah blah." 

Sometimes this really works, like in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."  The brilliant thing here is the shock value.  It's not what you're expecting from a This is My Story opening.  Most of the time, however, I think it's weak.  I want you to show me that your story's interesting or important or unbelievable.  Don't tell me. 

People rave about The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  I honestly couldn't get into it, but that might have been my state of mind at the time.  It starts, "My name is Kvothe. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in."  Massively creative. A taste of intriguing world building.  But then it goes on. "I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day."  And on. "I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep."  When reading, all I could think was, "Great, another wordy braggart who just won't shut up about himself.  That's all I need in my life."  But it obviously worked for a lot of people. 

Here's how Mark Twain started Huckleberry Finn:  "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."  A variation on the theme, with a little added product placement.  Other classics start similarly, as if writing a boilerplate introduction paragraph to a five paragraph essay:  Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, various others.  I've also seen Asimov and Heinlein do it in third person.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford begins, "This is the saddest story I've ever heard."  To me, that's like writing a query letter to an agent and saying, "This is the best book you'll ever read."  Automatic reject.  But again, it obviously worked for some people.

This one's cool, but chiefly because it plays with the trope—and intrigues the reader:  "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."  John Barth, The End of the Road.  So, in a sense you're not?  Makes me want to read. 

I challenge you, as a writer, to never start a book this way unless you can give it a clever twist.  

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Melinda, I never thought of it exactly this way! And your examples make the definition of "trope" much clearer than the usual. Now I'm running to see what Webster has to say about "trope."

Karen Cioffi said...

Melinda, great post. For those like me who aren't too familiar with the word, I looked up the definition of trope. Merriam-webster says, "a common or overused theme or device."

I agree that the "This is My Story" should be used carefully. The only two examples above I like are written by Alice Sebold and Mark Twain.

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