Nothing is more caustic to the conversation of narrative structure than the trope. A breeding ground for meaningless instances of pattern recognition, the trope is the nihilist’s playground. The absurdity of life played out in plot devices and genre conventions.
Recall the last article in this series, Writing a Meaningful End to Conflict, and the conversation surrounding Bond’s physicality in Skyfall.
Ah, so yes, I did remember those scenes, but I chalked these up entirely to the “you’re getting too old for this business” trope which while it shares the word “old” with the question of “the old ways vs. the new” isn’t actually relevant except as a kind of metaphor: Bond is getting physically old, and his ways of being a spy are old, therefore Bond’s body is a metaphor for the traditional ways of spying. But it’s kind of cheap and to me less effective than if we’d had a younger Bond who was discovering the problems with being a traditional spy in a high-tech world.
Bond getting old exists as a metaphor for you in Skyfall because the narrative failed to integrate the Main Character Throughline fully. That’s a failure of the structure, not of concept.
Thankfully, the Dramatica theory of story sees beyond the uselessness of the trope. It explains why the “you’re getting too old for this” line appears in many stories within this Genre.
The “too old for this” bit is conflict within the context of Universe—an inequity bred from the external state of things. The reason why it appears so often in Secret Agent Action films is due to the juxtaposition of the objective view of conflict and the subjective perspective. The “trope” is a result of an Overall Story conflict in Physics and a Main Character Throughline in Universe. It reflects the difficulties inherent with the work and “I’m getting too old for this.”
This arrangement of perspectives contains the added-bonus of the Main Character who prefers to solve problems externally. Dramatica structure identifies this dynamic as a Main Character Approach of Do-er. When you find yourself facing a problematic external situation (Universe), your go-to preference for solving that conflict is taking external action. There aren’t too many super spy films concerned with the internal components of their hero—unless you’re writing about Jason Bourne.
Bourne is less “I’m getting too old for this,” and more “What did I use to do?”
The Main Character Throughline of The Bourne Identity focuses on Bourne’s inability to remember his past. Mind instead of Universe. The internal over the external. This thematic relationship is why The Bourne Identity feels different than most Bond films—the sources of conflict differ in a meaningful and measurable way.
The virus that is the trope clouds the mind’s ability to perceive meaning. Wrapped in the comfort of * “Oh, I’ve seen this one before,”* the infected focuses on common elements of Storytelling rather than Story Structure. Illustrations over the content.
You see what I mean? Rolling out grandpa in a wheelchair and having him not able to shoot straight is a pretty piss-poor argument for, “see, guns are so passé. It’s all about drones these days.”
It’s not the words themselves, but the meaning behind the words that move an Audience. The characters don’t make the argument, the story makes the argument. The narrative Elements underneath define the form of that narrative argument.
Grandpa not being able to shoot straight can be seen as a sign of inadequacy. This inadequacy signals something intolerable. Indiscriminate drones that kill innocents is something unacceptable. Drones, therefore, are inadequate in matters of espionage.
The subtext beneath the Subject Matter Illustrations of “Grandpa” and “drones” connects with a single narrative Element: inadequacy. This connection forms the foundation for that narrative argument. The resonance between them is what signals to an Audience that something more exists here.
Skyfall made this connection, but then dropped it for much of the traditional Second Act.
And yet it got 92% on Rotten Tomatoes (I mention this only because you brought up movies with >90% being representative of complete storyforms).
Generally speaking, yes, this is the case. Occasionally you will find those properties that—resplendent with beloved characters and enduring franchises—skirt by their deficiencies with love and rabid fandom. Frozen is one such example (the franchise being Disney Animation). Incredibles 2 is another. Mission Impossible: Fallout is entirely bereft of meaning, and yet scores 97% amongst critics. Skyfall fits the bill by riding decades of that same goodwill.
Quantum of Solace,—with its 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—is another story.
One thing I’m developing for Subtext is the ability to compare critical reception with the completeness of the storyform. This process requires a weighting of Storypoints such that you could tell to the degree how competent a film or novel was in completing its narrative argument (storyform). Match that with the admittedly subjective rating from something like Rotten Tomatoes, and you create a system of analytics that accounts for both heart and mind.
Quantum of Solace is a good comparison for Skyfall, if for no other reason than it was a victim of the writer’s strike at the time. With the deadline of the release rapidly approaching, even Bond himself (Daniel Craig) took to pen.
It didn’t quite work out.
From the look of the trailer, Quantum appeared to be a complete story. The classic “You and I are both alike” is the centerpiece of the advertisement, and features strongly in the Dramatica You and I montage.
When the film arrived, it left the Relationship Story Throughline out wholly. Not a drop of heart or emotion to be found anywhere.
Skyfall at least had the wherewithal to start encoding its deficient Main Character Throughline. They managed to go the extra distance and finish it, but the development of that thread fell by the wayside during the middle of the film.
Maybe they thought they had enough to cover the “trope.”
If I were to weight Skyfall’s Main Character Throughline, I would give it a 66% complete. This sufficient showing, along with the 100% development and completion of the Overall Story, Influence Character, and Relationship Story Throughlines, would easily explain why it rises above that 90% mark.
If I were to rate the value of a trope in defining a narrative structure, I would give it 2%. Two—instead of zero—because identifying “grandpa has a gun” is one step removed from a Main Character Throughline of Universe. The trope is not entirely useless, but it’s close.
The Dramatica theory of story, on the other hand, gets an AAA+ rating.
Tropes are superficial and surface level, almost snarky in their unwillingness to dig down deep and find out why a particular bit of story continues to reappear. Dramatica starts with the why first, then works itself back up to general and commonplace.
The cure for the disease.