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I have favorite pieces of film – a few seconds or minutes at most – from full length movies, that I can watch repeatedly. The attack on the Cong village from Apocalypse Now is one – and to be more specific, those few seconds (longer in the early version than in Redux I think) where the helicopters rise into the air to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The barn-raising sequence in Witness is another.

A longer piece is the drive of Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, through the early morning snow to their destinies in the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I can watch this clip, which opens the film and runs throughout the titles and credits, over and again and the hairs will still stand up on the back of my neck. I first saw film simply because this scene had hooked me unexpectedly in the act of turning off the TV after watching a programme I’d intended to watch.

A large part of the attraction, for all three, is the soundtrack music. In fact, in the case of The Human Stain, the clip could be a ‘video’ to the music, rather than the music a background to the movie. Not that the visual themselves aren’t gripping – the soft slipping of the vehicle over the snowy road; the baleful eyes of the headlamps; the faint glow of those headlamps’ beams on the surface of the snow; the bare trunks of the trees; the close-ups on the faces of Hopkins and Kidman.

Even without that first time surprise of finding out what happens, the scene is potent and haunting, it has that quality of ‘a certain surprisingness’ which C’S’Lewis tells us is why we can read and re-read a story – through whatever medium perhaps – without losing interest. Text, Music, Image, to borrow a title from Roland Barthes, all can provide us with such tropes.

The word itself is worth a glance. You’ll find it in Scholes’ Dictionary of Music (and probably on Wickipaedia too), where, in relation to liturgical texts and music, it’s described as ‘an intercalation of music or words’. More helpful, perhaps, is an explanation offered to me by the leader of a Gregorian Chant group. Tropes, he said, were small musical fillers put in, as one might put grace notes into a line of song. Scholes says they appeared in the 9th century, and were banned in the 15th. My friend suggested that in between they got a bit too big for themselves, as practioneers used them to show off their musical talents! The term is still used, musically, but now for a form of hymn, intended to stand alone.

You’ll find the word also in dictionaries of literary terms. The Penguin one pins it to the Greek word for ‘turn’, and for myself, that’s ‘turn’ as in party piece. Popular usage has it referring to sections of secular text that stand out from their surrounding stories. I can think of a few: Gerty McDowell showing her knickers to Leopold Bloom in James Joyces’ Ulysses springs to mind, but that often happens! In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the backward running film of the bombing raid on Germany is one. So is the death of Simon, to my way of thinking, in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The death of Little Nell, the murder of Nancy, and the meeting of Pip with Magwich are among many from Dickens. They are the pieces he used to perfom on stage, sending tight corsetted Victorian Ladies gasping for their smelling salts, and stiff-upper lipped Victorian gentlemen for their handkerciefs. These are the sort of tropes that won for themselves the description of Purple Passages – sections from larger stories, famous for their heightened emotional content.

My examples are all from novels, and it might be said that novels are really archipelagoes of tropes in seas of tropelessness. Adopting another metaphor, tropes might be seen as the emnotional punches novels subject us to, and all the rest is the fancy footwork, the ducking and weaving, jabbing and probing, that goes on to set the writer up for throwing those punches, and to manouevre the reader into the most vulnerable position for receiving them.

Perhaps, we might argue, a difference between the novel and the short story, is that whereas the former may contain a series of tropes, the short story is built around one – a knockout blow delivered at the end.

In many cases, authors often ploughing the same furrow, or at least the same field, repeatedly, the trope might be seen as type of content, or a type of style that is in common use by that author – a way of doing things; a reason for doing them: a step away from that older meaning, but still, in some ways ‘a turn’. You might even say, that a trope is a flourish, a signature, a maker’s mark, the hallmark of an author at his trade.

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