As a general rule, I keep to the TvTropes credo that tropes are not bad.
Even the worse offenders can sometimes be used in brilliant ways that tell good stories. Even completely vile ones like Women in Refrigerators have, on occasion managed to produce something good in the end, like Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle despite the awful circumstances surrounding that in DC’s continually and terrifyingly toxic corporate culture. (I’ll note here that the writer who did this admitted that using the trope was a terrible mistake, but new writers turned that dross into gold.)
And then there are these tropes. They are actually so lazy, so idiotic and so completely useless to any plot they come into contact with that I cannot find any redeeming value in them at all. They aren’t really offensive in the traditional sense, but once I’m done, I hope you’ll see how they are repugnant from the perspective of a person with goddamn common sense.
Which is why it vexes me so that most people don’t even notice this, largely because they’re so ubiquitous. In fact, I will bet that within the past year, you have consumed at least five examples of media with these inthem and it just never occurred to you that they had no point.
This first one I touched on last time, but it stands to going to detail on…
‘I’ll Buy You Time’
Let me be blunt: If you are a character in a work of fiction and you are suddenly struck with a desire to ‘buy time’ for your companions… then your god has abandoned you. In fact, the creator of your universe never loved you or saw even the tiniest glimmer of value in your pitiful and soon to be terminal existence. Instead, they saw you as a space-filler; there to pad out the work, provide a little exposition and then be discarded.
Such is their utter lack of regard for you that they can’t even be asked to write you out of the story with anything approaching effort. Instead, they dredge up the most false form of the Heroic Sacrifice trope to justify your inevitable demise.
We all know this set-up, right? The enemy is bearing down or the clock is ticking on something and one character suddenly thinks they’re going to delay things long enough for the others to live by ‘buying them some time’. Usually, this comes in the form of a suicide charge against a foe the whole group couldn’t slow down with concentrated fire and tactics, or an attempt to distract or lead away some group who know there are multiple targets in the area.
I would wager that this works at best ten percent of the time. All other times, they just die… like instantly. As in, they run off screen and we hear shots and a scream, or in rare cases, we get to see the fight and it lasts five seconds. Either way, no time was bought.
No, actually, a negative amount of time was bought because most of the time, groups will stop and discuss the upcoming bad choice, with oen side playing mouthpiece tot he writer trying to justify this sack of bullshit while the rest list fo completely valid reasons not to do so. But logic means nothing to the plot reaper, and the sap will go off and die swiftly no matter what.
Most aggravatingly, this often happens multiple times in a row, with several characters each getting a severe drop in IQ points before deciding that the completely pointless demise of their friend looked like fun, so they should give it a try too.
Even worse, the real final battle usually comes down to a lot closer a thing because of a lack of manpower.
Writers will often declare that they love all their characters and it hurts every time they kill one. Well if they use this trope, then they are goddamn liars. The only reason to use ‘Buy You Some Time’ is when you want a character dead, but can’t think of a plot related reason to do it and are too mentally healthy to kill them to show the audience that death is a real, random thing. No other reason. Period.
Feel free to show me examples of works where a character actually accomplishes something while buying time, but I was hard-pressed to think of one. Most of the time, people who actually buy time do so by doing something external rather than acting as a living speed bump. Maybe the engineer’s death in The Core, seeing as he saves the ship? But is that really buying time? I don’t think so.
But I have complained about death tropes for a month now, so let’s move on to…
Save The World To Save This One Jerk
Perhaps I am a kinder, more giving person than most. It might be that my altruism is stronger than that of others. Or maybe it’s because I’m not a massive, terrifying narcissist who also seems to not care about myself… but I don’t think I would need a significant other, best friend, relative or dog placed in extra- immediate danger to convince me to save the world.
Like, the entire world. Let’s bee clear here: this trope has to do with the very real threat that all of the world willb e destroyed/enslaved/forced to watch Batman v Superman and the hero isn’t truly motivated into action—even while knowing this—until someone close to them is put into more immediate danger.
Here’s another place where I must be blunt: this trope exists because the write thinks you—yes you—are not only extremely stupid, but selfish too.
It all comes down to a concept we’ve only really touched on here on this blog: stakes. Or rather, it comes down to the utter inability of tons of writers to fathom any stakes beyond something happening to something personal to you. You know the cliché ‘Now It’s Personal’? Yeah, some writers think that is the only way to motivate anyone ever.
A quick rundown: ‘Stakes’ is shorthand for the question ‘what is at stake’, meaning what are the consequences of the hero’s failure (or success in some stories). Why are they doing this thing? What is their motivation. Now in reality, this can be anything. Maybe the only real stake is shame or dignity loss, but the character is such that this is something that care deeply about. Maybe losing means they forfeit something. The sky is literally the limit.
Raising the stakes means to escalate the conflict by making the consequences more severe. Again, the sky is the limit, especially if you started small like someone who knows what ‘pacing*’ is.
(*pacing is the speed at which scenes and situations of the story flow and build toward climax based on how quickly the audience absorbs information an gets comfortable or tense as the situation warrants)
And in some works, the initial stake is the end of the world or at least a big part of it. This is fine. It is perfectly acceptable to start big from the outset and make the focus more on character development, or action or even the flow from set-piece to set-piece. However, starting in Hollywood and eventually worming its way out into writing everywhere, the trend has been an obsession with raising the stakes even when there is no need for it at all, just because you can.
How the hell do you go bigger and more important than the world asploding?
Put a gun to the head of the hero’s girlfriend, of course.
Yeah. Given the information that all of existence is going to be destroyed, the hero doens’t get the true urgency of the situation until his girlfriend, friend or pet (which are all basically interchangeable and also not part of existence) is put into danger.
Now… on the surface, there are instances where this set-up can work: like in The Matrix where the Architect gives Neo the chance to save Trinity or Zion, or the ‘Let fall the woman you love, or suffer the little children’ scene in the first Spider-man movie.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. In those cases, the hero is given a choice. Some might even say a sadistic choice and their choice reflects their character. In this trope, however, the act of saving whoever it is comes hand-in-hand with their saving the world. There is no choice and there’s no actual reason in terms of plot that said hostage needed to be put into danger. They’re there only to raise the stakes.
However, the real result here is making the hero seem very, very stupid, selfish and paradoxically completely without a sense of self-preservation.
Well I’ll let you in on a little secret: If the world is destroyed, the hostage and the hero themselves are going to die anyway.
It’s entirely possible that you, a human being with basic simian common sense already knew this, but believe me, far too many characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy have never considered this wild theory that the world is the place where they and everyone they know live and keep their stuff.
By extension, the writers of these works are trying to up the stakes by making things personal… because they don’t think you know this. No, seriously. The point of stakes is to make you, the consumer of the work, care about the outcome of the story. Therefore, this is all for your benefit—and they don’t think you care enough about the world being destroyed.
This might be the case, actually, because this kind of stunt is usually the kind of laziness that also leads to poorly developed worlds and side characters that make it so hard to care whether they’re destroyed or not. Which ironically means that the hostage in question is also likely so poorly developed that no one cares about them either except for the fact that the main character cares aobut them.
So really in the end, they’re heavily depending on psychology to make up for their lack of skill in building up… well anything. And you know what we call that? Manipulative. And we know how much I hate that.
Speaking of manipulative, let’s talk about one that’s actively harming real people in real life!
You Must Give Up Everything That Makes You Unique For Love
Are you a person with quirks or odd hobbies?
I’m willing to bet ‘yes’, seeing as you’re on this site, which means you’re either a fan of fantasy, sueprheroes or writing.
In that case, it is my sad duty to inform you that because of this, you are flawed so fundamentally that no one will ever love you. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that: someone will be able to love you, but you are doomed to screw up so bad with them that for reasons completely unrelated to your interests, you will have to sacrifice them forever in order to cement your love once anf for all.
At least that’s what Hollywood thinks.
I know you can’t see me, but I’m rubbing my face in frustration because this sumbitch is going to take some explaining.
Okay, so there are currently two schools of thought in Hollywood and by extension other forms of writing. One side feels that being geeky and weird is cool and fun. The other, mostly the older generation at this point, feel that it’s a childish trait that must be shed to become a complete adult—and that only ‘complete adults’ deserve happy endings; in this case a lasting love.
This second view used to be a given to the point that they cast outliers as freaks and mutants to be mocked and ignored and that was it. But as it became more chic, they felt the need to rage against it and took it upon themselves to show these poor creatures the right way via the most important of film genres: the romantic comedy.
That’s not sarcasm by the way: I love me some romantic comedy. Like, a lot. But it’s one that I have to be far more discerning than normal because a lot of them are hot garbage. This is one of the reasons why.
So under this trope, we start with a geeky person with geeky or off-beat hobbies and insterests. For effect, this enjoyment will be exaggerated, painting the character and really everyone connected to the hobby as pathetic losers and manchildren/womanchildren. Through what is often portrayed as a minor miracle, this person manages to meet and charm what is usually portrayed as a ‘normal’ human being who has nothing to do with that hobby or really any of the first character’s interests but they fall in love anyway.
Sometimes, the hobby will come up as something that helps charm the love interest… but don’t worry: it’s never treated as anything more than something completely frivolous. Eventually, as is the rule of romantic comedies (because stakes again), the couple have a falling out that tangentially relates to the main character not being ‘adult’.
It’s at this point that the main character must give up their hobby or interest (often portrayed as doing so forever) as part of a big, romantic gesture that means they’ve finally become an adult and thus worthy of gaining love as a prize.
Jeez, I will get back to ‘Love As A Prize’ another day, but let’s just hold the phone.
Now call me old fashioned, but wouldn’t whatever odd hobbies or even childish things about you be part of… your personality and interests? And wouldn’t you be better off with someone who shares or at least accepts those things about you instead of someone who is totally okay with you throwing away something you love for them?
Let’s be completely honest here: if you was giving up things that are important yo you in order to win the affections of another, then you my friend are in a dysfunctional relationship. That is literally one of the signs of being in an unhealthy interaction with someone. Believe me, I’ve been there, okay? I was younger and dumber—AND WATCHED THESE GODDAMN MOVIES—and thought this was how you get a girlfriend.
Granted, I didn’t give things up so much as pretend I thought video games and sci-fi were stupid, but the principle is the same. Hell, I gave up writing for a while in college because of this. All I got was miserable. And that’s all it will get you.
And it isn’t just nerdy stuff. Giving up anything personal about you is not a romantic gesture, it’s the kind of gesture a dog makes to a tick: allowing itself harm for no real return—because if they loved you, then they wouldn’t be asking for this.
Okay, so enough of Uncle Vaal’s love advice. Why is this terrible writing in additional to terrible relationship construction? Well it goes back to the core of all three of these tropes: it is completely unneeded.
First, we don’t need to tack on a really weird and outdated coming of age narrative to a love story. Its presence just speaks to the frustrations of writers of a certain age that people don’t behave the way they feel they ought to.
But more importantly, situations like this exist merely because writers labor under the mistaken belief that every story must have a very clear, blatant conflict. A story can’t be about the building of an interesting, funnny romance in a romantic comedy. No, we have to have some kind of bullshit misunderstanding or argument in the middle so the writer can feel like they accomplished something.
Writers kind o thrive on conflict. One of the first questions you’ll hear asked when discussing a new story is ‘what’s the central conflict’? And to be honest, most writers don’t get what that means. They thing it’s going to be someone vs someone else. The truth is conflict is about what the characters want and what they will do to get it.
For a romantic comedy, that really can be building an interesting and entertaining relationship while taking the audience along for the ride. This is something I’ve noticed the writers of the much-maligned (and wrongly so) erotica genre seem to have gotten over. Yes, there can be conflict when it’s needed, but they manage to produce works where it is about the relationship—also the sex. If other writers took a lesson from them, we’d have better product to show for it.
And that’s it for this week. These tropes are the products of rote following of formulae, laziness, or utter callus storytelling and writers would do well to identify and eradicate them from their repertoires.
Alastair Maclean used “I’ll Buy You Time” to good effect in The Guns of Navarone, I think. The character grabbed a machine gun, some grenades, and a sidearm or three and held off the pursuing soldiers in a narrow canyon long enough for the rest of the special forces to get to the town and hide their tracks. Without that… well, mission failure.
Without the force multiplier of the machine gun + terrain, that wouldn’t have worked, and without the nature of special forces asymmetrical warfare it wouldn’t really have worked either.
Do we get to see that fight?
What would you think of 300 as a possible example of doing the Buying Time trope right? The major plot is literally the 300 buying time for Greece to prepare for a Persian invasion, sacrificing themselves in the process.
I wouldn’t count that because it’s the plot, not a character moment.