Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trope or Cliché?

Today's New York Times Book Review has a fascinating article on using computers to analyze what words and phrases turn up most often in different kinds of text. Ben Zimmer, author of the article, argues that the fact that phrases like "bolt upright" appear eight times more frequently in fiction than in magazines, newspapers, or spoken speech means that we still have a "literary style" that is different from other kinds of written and spoken communication.

Well, of course. But doesn't the frequent appearance of "bolt upright" suggest that we may also be talking about a cliché? Where did "bolt upright" come from? What's "bolt" got to do with sitting? Do we use the phrase so much because we're too lazy or unimaginative to find another way of describing someone sitting straight? Or is this a legitimate shorthand, no different, really, from saying "sandwich" instead of "two slices of bread with something tasty in between"?

The article raises other questions. It notes that fiction uses many more verbs of facial expression (such as "grimaced," "scowled," and "grunted") than other forms of writing. the article states,
Creative writers are clearly drawn to descriptive idioms that allow their characters to register emotional responses through telling bits of physical action....The conventions of modern storytelling dictate that fictional characters react to their worlds in certain stock ways and that the storytellers use stock expressions to describe those reactions. Readers might not think of such idioms as literary clichés....

My editor and I have heated discussions about the issue of when something is an acceptable trope, a bit of figurative shorthand, and when it's a cliché that should be purged even from children's literature. I picked one of the purged expression and decided to investigate it using the Corpus of Contemporary English database referenced in the article.

My offending phrase was "burst into tears." It appears 391 times per 100 million words of fiction--more often even than "bolt upright." Hmm. Sounds like it might be a cliché. Not surprisingly, "she" bursts into tears four times as often as "he" does. Apparently, however, in the past twenty years people have "dissolved into tears" much less often than they've burst into tears, and dissolving occurs primarily in magazines.

More gender-related findings: Fictional women bite their lips more than twice as often as men. (They're probably trying to keep from bursting into tears.) In the past twenty years, fictional men gritted their teeth only slightly more often than women, but they ground their teeth more than three times as often. Perhaps the men are suppressing outbursts of anger while their womenfolk suppress tears.

I'm not sure the corpus can answer my question about when a trope slips into a cliché, but it does raise an issue I think about sometimes: the tyranny of "Show, don't tell." Purists of this dictum argue that instead of labeling our characters emotions', we should always and only show them. So instead of saying "I was frightened", we say "my breath caught in my throat." According to the corpus, "caught" and "breath" show up nearby each other pretty darn often in fiction. Instead of saying, "There was something about his face I didn't trust," we write of narrow eyes or a unibrow or a curl to the lip--something the reader will recognize as an accepted trope, which means in fact that it's a convention, a cliché instead of a fresh observation. In the real world, what makes me mistrust a face may be something very subtle, hard to put my finger on, and in fact not a feature others would necessarily know to react to in the same way. Thus the stricture against telling may lead to weary conventions and stereotypes.

The boundary between convenient trope and stereotype is subtle, and so is the right place to set the balance between showing and telling. We are not, after all, creatures only of facial expression and bodily sensations: we don't spend all our time with our hearts pounding, feeling the blood rush to our faces, gulping, shuddering, grimacing, fidgeting, clenching our fists and biting our lips. Sometimes we reflect on the world, label emotions, or recognize others' intentions from cues too subtle to name. Sometimes our characters should, too.

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