Trope Life Cycle
Tropes have a natural life cycle. They are born when someone codifies a message-bearing pattern that had never been seen before. It matures as it become established, and lives a normal life as people use it in storytelling. It grows older as storytellers subvert it, and it grows senile as it becomes overused and people revile it as a cliche.—Kevin L. O'Brien, Discredited/Dead/Forgotten Tropes (Goodreads blog post, May 24, 2014)
The life-cycle of tropes is thus a movement from denotation (metonymy), which is the prime function of the indexical sign, to connotation (metaphor), in which the iconic relation dominates, to a symbol, whose essence is law.—Michael Herzfeld and Margot D. Lenhart, Semiotics 1980, page 152
Tropes are not eternal, sprung forth before the dawn of time from the brow of some literary god and like their forebear immortal and unchanging. Tropes are like many other things, living and not, in that they have a distinct life cycle. They are born, live and sometimes die — and they do so in what often seems like an almost organic process. And like organic things, they can surprise us; consider the following stages in the life of a trope to be at best a general guideline. Not every trope mechanically hits every step in this cycle (especially the ones that have yet to fade from use), and sometimes a single example can embody multiple stages all at once.
Ur Examples and Trope Makers
An Ur Example is an early usage that clearly demonstrates the essence of a trope, but may not have all the actual connotations or may be incomplete compared to later uses. It is in effect the primitive ancestor of the future trope, displaying characteristics that make it clear the two are related but clearly not quite there yet.
The Trope Maker is the first unambiguous example of a trope, with all the elements and features that identify it. Though there may have been similar things in the past, the Troper Maker defines the trope as later media consumers will recognize it.
Because Ur Examples are by definition incomplete and unformed, there can be more than one. However, there can be only one Trope Maker. Sometimes a single creator can generate one or more Ur Examples before he crafts the Trope Maker; more commonly, the Ur Examples inform later creators who refine the idea into a recognizable form.
Sometimes the creator who produces the Trope Maker goes above and beyond. Not only does he craft the example that defines the trope for later generations, he dives into and explores all its ramifications. Unburdened by years of other works using, refining and sometimes restricting the trope, he is able to follow all its implications and consequences to their obvious conclusions. As a side effect of his nuanced and in-depth examination of the idea, his work looks like a Deconstruction of the very trope he's creating, before there's a construction there to deconstruct. This is an Unbuilt Trope.
Regardless of how it gets there, the idea eventually reaches its audience. Other creators in that audience like the idea and use it in their works. It may go through several generations of Ur Examples before if finally finds a Trope Maker. Along the way it stops being a unique cool idea specific to a particular creator, and becomes a Trope — a common, even standardized, component for the kind of work in which it appears.
Sooner or later — maybe in its very first appearance, maybe in a later work — there will come an implementation of the trope so striking and archetypal that it defines all other uses from that point on. This is the Trope Codifier. Paradoxically, it may not bear a strong resemblance to the Trope Maker (especially if the Trope Maker was also an Unbuilt Trope), but it effectively becomes the trope for all later generations of both audiences and creators.
To help clarify the differences, here are a set of examples used several other places in the wiki:
For the Detective Story trope:
- "The Tale Of the Three Apples" in The Arabian Nights is an Ur Example. Another would be Oedipus Rex, first performed on 429 BCE, during the course of which Oedipus investigates the cause of the plague that has struck his realm. A third would be Hamlet, during which the eponymous Prince of Denmark investigates the murder of his father with the goal of revealing and punishing his killer. None of them are true detective stories as we would recognize them, but they all bear some resemblance to the modern concept.
- The Trope Maker is Edgar Allan Poe's stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin, most notably The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Before Dupin, there is no story genre of fictional detectives going about the business of solving crimes; after Dupin, the lack of the genre would be unthinkable.
- Finally, the Trope Codifier is Sherlock Holmes. Every detective who combines intelligence, knowledge and logic with dogged determination descends, directly or indirectly, from Holmes.
Once it has been codified, a Trope can be for all practical purposes immortal. Since the most effective tropes directly address universally human experiences and actions, they can easily span cultures, languages, even entire civilizations, moving from audience to audience and appearing in new works for centuries or even millennia. Some tropes grow so intrinsic to storytelling that they become Omnipresent — so ubiquitous, you don't even think of them as tropes until they're pointed out to you, so vital to a particular genre or type of story that they would suffer from its exclusion, or so expected that their lack would be perceived as a failure.
Not every trope settles into a such a steady state, though.
Some tropes continue to grow and change as the world around them does the same, transforming and mutating into new forms of themselves to always reflect the society telling the stories in which they appear.
In such ways do some tropes survive for decades, centuries or more.
Death of a Trope
Some tropes aren't so lucky. It is the lot in life for all tropes to suffer subversion, parody or any number of other transformations. Many tropes survive such things and come out stronger or more universal for them. Others end up overused or misused until they are rendered Cliché and trite. Sometimes a subversion is so prominent and so effective that no one can take the trope seriously any more. A modern work may deconstruct it so thoroughly that it can't be reconstructed. Or it may simply fall victim to advances in science, technology or society as whole, rendering it obsolete.
Thus begins the twilight of a trope, in which it has become discredited. A Discredited Trope cannot be taken seriously any more, so no one uses it seriously any more. Creators and audiences alike come to think that the trope only belongs in parody, satire, homage or pastiche. If for any reason a Discredited Trope is played straight, the audience will be primed to expect a twist or other clever use, and may end up disappointed when the trope is nothing but itself in all its fading glory.
From here, it's a short trip to the next station on the downward slide:
Dead Horse Trope
When a trope has fallen so far that not only is it rarely used straight, parodying or subverting it is a trope in and of itself, then it has become a Dead Horse Trope.
Sometimes, though, the trope just won't die. It survives treatment by creators which would kill any other trope and somehow claws its way back into a state where it manages to exist side-by-side with its subversions and parodies, and still get used straight from time to time. Such a case is an Undead Horse Trope, and some Undead Horse Tropes manage to go all the way through and out the other side to become Omnipresent Tropes.
Those that don't, though, meet the final death, where the trope falls into disuse and creators forget that it even existed. The Forgotten Trope can only found in older works, written during its heyday. Occasionally a modern creator will do the research for a period piece and briefly unearth a forgotten trope, propping the embalmed body up where it can be seen as an exemplar of its time and place. But no one else will bother with it any more. The audience's reaction will at best be puzzlement or perhaps acknowledgement of how quaint and old-fashioned the trope is, and then it will be forgotten once again.
It is possible to resurrect a Forgotten Trope. A sufficiently successful work, Society Marching in a circle, or other radical change may bring a long-dead trope back to relevancy. For example, the Boarding School trope was essentially forgotten in the 1960s, but was revived by J.K Rowling's Harry Potter novels. It's possible, but it is rare.