Tripping over the tropes

After doing the usual minuet to get An Annoyance of Grackles live on Kindle and almost-there on Createspace, I’ve taken a couple of days off to be shamelessly frivolous. I indulged in Dorothy Grant’s new book, Shattered after Midnight – there’s a review here – and watched a DVD I’ve been hoarding of the operetta Countess Maritza all the way through, sung in German with English subtitles. I was sort of familiar with the operetta — a CD of highlights is among the music I like to listen to while writing the Applied Topology series, light and frothy —  but I’ve never been able to follow the plot summaries in English.

Now I know why. The thing is as close as you can get to being entirely plot-free. It was like being served something covered with whipped cream for dessert, plunging your fork into the whipped cream and diving down to reach… more whipped cream. I got the feeling that the librettists couldn’t bear to let their characters suffer; no sooner would a problem be revealed than a new deus ex machina would come onstage to fix it.

And the most annoying non-plot bit concerned Baron Kálmán Zsupán. 

Let’s back up: The young and wealthy widow Countess Maritza has retreated to her country estates to avoid the fortune-hunters who plague her in Vienna. As a further discouragement to her would-be suitors, she announces her engagement to a Baron Kálmán Zsupán, who, sadly, is unable to attend the engagement party in person… or so she thinks. She confesses to a friend that the Baron does not exist; she invented him to ward off suitors, and the only name she could think of was that of the wealthy pig-farmer in the Strauss operetta The Gypsy Baron.

Promptly, the Baron makes his appearance in person, saying that he had been surprised to read of his engagement but is happy to make Maritza’s acquaintance. Twirling his mustaches and flourishing the cape that semi-covers his glorious gold-braided uniform, he informs her that he is so wealthy that her money does not matter to him. Oh, and he has eighteen thousand beautiful pink pigs on his estate. With this introduction, he sweeps Maritza into a lively duet that begins with her throwing his flowers at him and ends with a blissful agreement that they will live happily ever after.

Okay. Now we all know what to expect, don’t we? Here’s a setup worthy of Blandings Castle. “Kálmán Zsupán” has to be an impostor, and the rest of the operetta must turn on freeing Maritza from him while arranging a happy conclusion for him too (because even if he’s a rogue, he’s a charming rogue.)

Well… no.

I watched in slack-jawed disbelief as the operetta went on its merry way and I slowly realized that we were supposed to take the Baron at face value – him and his eighteen thousand beautiful pink pigs! What a disappointment!

Now, sometimes it can be fun to play against the expected tropes of a genre. But the surprise is satisfying only if you offer the readers something better than what they expected. If it’s just a bald refusal to play at all, they’re going to be disappointed. The dark, miasmal basement with the broken stairs needs nothing but redecorating and some attention to drainage. The too-good-to-be-true heroic soldier isn’t a double agent or a reasonable man caught up in a war not of his making; he’s just noble and heroic. The couple who “meet cute” in the first scene soon decide that they’re not that interested in each other and would just as soon date just about anybody else.

It’s no fun.

And as writers, we don’t even get to dress up the plot with a lively csárdás. We really have to make the bare naked story fun for the readers, because in the end that’s all we can offer them: words on a page.

A look at this performance should explain why I still like the operetta, even if I would have preferred something more like a torte under all that whipped cream. (Skip ahead to 3:00 to skip the conversation and go straight to the song and dance.)




  1. Oooh! Found you!

    …Congrats on getting another book out! (It was an awesomely fun read!)

    1. That thing above put me in Sample mode. I see you’re titling your chapters; I like that.

  2. … and if the Strauss baron of the pigs is real does it mean our heroine is unreal? I mean, I’m hoping for some self-aware joke about a fourth wall where of course, since she’s in an opera, then people in other operas are as real as she is.

    1. That makes sense to me.

      In modern media web comics often do this. They have a cross-over special where the other comic’s universe is completely real.

      I don’t read a lot of print comics but I know they often do the same thing, although restricted within the same publisher.

      So to me it makes sense that this opera might include the other opera within its reality. Maybe that’s supposed to be the thing that gets the audience’s attention, that this pig farming aristocrat is there in the world.

      Although it does seem it would make it a less interesting story since everything just goes right and works out without problems.

      1. The crossovers can also be good business. Back in the stone ages, I read a web comic User Friendly. Got bored with it several years ago, but there was a crossover from Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance. That comic hooked me, and I’m still reading it, with the comic at 21 years or so.

        In turn, Abrams had another artist do Sunday strips (Ian MacDonald, of the late Bruno the Bandit strip.) BtB went dormant when Ian got clobbered by life, but it was good–worth reading.

        TL;DR: crossovers can be helpful, though there’s a danger–if the newcomer is so much better than the original, somebody needs to improve or hurt.

        I think there’s still an April 1st crossover tradition with several comics.

  3. “The dark, miasmal basement with the broken stairs needs nothing but redecorating and some attention to drainage.”

    Speaking of, did you guys see the story about the Aztecs today?

    There are churches in Mexico with that in their basement. Every once in a while, I read something like this and I give thanks that magic doesn’t work, and the effects of dark deeds don’t linger.

      1. If they did linger, all of fricking Europe would be like a toxic waste spill, ghasts everywhere. Think of it: no matter how bad the Aztecs were, Stalin made them look like amateurs. It took them decades to build up a rack with 100,000 skulls on it, the Russians managed that in a week.

        1. It really depends on how sensitive you are. Rhys and I visited Guam for a short holiday, and we visited some of the Japanese tunnels, because history, y’know? I followed Rhys in to explore and suddenly came up smack bang into a wall of rage and GET OUT, and a glimpse of an angry, gaunt Japanese face with a moustache and angry eyes. Rhys, in the meantime, was further in the tunnel, looking at me confused. I could NOT make myself go in much further; trying resulted in being very, very cold, so I went back out and waited, since the ghost didn’t seem to have a problem with Rhys for some reason.

            1. I did write up the story of how Rhys saw a ghost on his first visit to the Philippines. It’s “Welcome to the Philippines” under Stories of the Strange on my blog.

              My brother is arguably worse in the ghost department than I am. I sense things. He sees them. I should write up the story of that particularly horrifying encounter he had with The Red Lady.

        2. Let me put it this way–I would never live anywhere near Auschwitz, Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen, or any of the gulags.
          Weirdly enough, I’d have no trouble living near Gettysburg, Antietam, or Shiloh. Those places seem almost welcoming.

          1. Even though they say Gettysburg is terribly haunted? Maybe you feel that way because it’s “our” ghosts.

            Just a speculation . . .

    1. One of the reasons that churches consecrate and bless land, buildings, and objects, and why formal blessings for various things include minor exorcisms, is that one wishes to both claim things for God and drive away demons. (Blah, blah, Eden and taming the Earth, co-workers with Christ, you get it.)

      It has been noted that post-Vatican II blessing formats often exclude both the hallowing part and the imprecatory/exorcistic prayers. The theology of blessings is often badly taught, by people who do not really believe in them.

      Not to be conspiratorial… But it is stupid. If you want stuff to happen, it is only polite to be explicit, and not just hope God does the needful. It is still permissible to use the old blessings, and it seems more prudent.

      Anyway, any mountains of skulls under churches are now resting in peace in consecrated ground. Best place for them. But yes, not nice.

      1. It mentions in the article that consecrating the ground is the reason all those churches were built. The Spanish had to do -something- to try and fix it, a church wasn’t the worst option they could have come up with.

      2. Sounds like a good hook for a dark fantasy or horror story. “What do you *mean,* the priest left out the exorcisms?”

      3. For fun, (sort of) folks here should have a look around online about the articles where apparently, there aren’t enough exorcist priests any more and the Roman Catholic Church is (yes, present tense) getting innundated with requests for exorcisms.

  4. Re: the operetta clip: great uniform, hideous dress. She looks like a blinking milkmaid.

    Anyway. Tropes. “The too-good-to-be-true heroic soldier isn’t a double agent or a reasonable man caught up in a war not of his making; he’s just noble and heroic.”

    Frankly, I’m more than a little sick of the noble hero who turns out to be a double agent, not out of conviction but merely out of greed, or else he’s revealed as a child molester, a serial rapist, or whatever kind of sociopath you can imagine. So I can kind of understand the motivation of writers who maintain his noble heroism all the way through. But even if he really does have a heart of gold, it’s no fun for the reader if it’s not refined through trouble and adversity. If he’s going to stay noble, make it hard for him. Force him to take the consequences of adhering to his ideals.

    So yeah. I agree. Go ahead and defy the tropes– but be sure to give us something better.

    1. Unless that’s the point. He’s annoyingly noble, and you can’t stand to be around him, and you have no excuse for disliking him, d*** it! I’ve seen it done, but you have to concentrate on the *other* characters to make it work.

    2. Agreed about the dress. But it’s better than the version where everybody was in ’20’s costume. (I didn’t even know you could Charleston to a czardas, and now I wish I could erase the memory.)

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