- No suicides
- No gunshots
- No self-harming on stage
- No dead girl tropes
Why the Censorship?
The first three restrictions are school policy. We are not infringing on your right to free speech in the larger society, but in the classroom we have a legal responsibility to provide a psychologically healthy environment. While it is impossible to guarantee that, we can put restrictions in place in an attempt to avoid some of the obvious triggers people might have.
Some university creative writing courses have similar restrictions for everyone’s well-being. Even master’s degree programs. Writing teachers are not psychologists.
I have heard stories of book editors who were traumatized by having to read thousands of manuscripts from amateur writers, the majority of which are filled with violent tropes. Some publishing houses have similar restrictions on their open submission policies.
These restrictions are not put in place because we feel you are too young to handle the subject matter: there is a time and a place for everything.
The “no dead girl tropes” is a restriction based on my own artistic/pedagogic philosophy. Often this trope is there because the dead woman (or raped woman) is nothing more than a plot device. I have very strong feelings about this.
If your dramaturgy is flat, I want to push you to find more creative ways to create tension in the story. Again: there is a time and a place for everything, and I am not saying there should not be dead girl tropes in stories… I just want to discourage you from using them as cheap tricks to grab attention.
The dead girl trope is an unconscious habit in our culture’s storytelling.
What is a Trope?
To keep it ridiculously simple for the sake of our practical work:
If you had me in Theater History 1, you might remember we talked about tropes from drama in Middle Ages. A trope was a scene from a larger story the priest was telling the congregation. This scene was “acted out” in detail, before the priest returned to the narrative storytelling.
A trope has come to mean a sequence of events that we often see repeated – sometimes many times within a single story, sometimes it is repeated in our culture’s storytelling. The popular television crime series and films almost always employ a “dead girl trope”: the story’s inciting incident is someone stumbling on the body of a beautiful young woman.
There is no reason for us to always avoid tropes. Some people claim it is actually impossible. The problem is, some tropes become over-used and slide over into cliches.
What’s Wrong with a Cliche?
The dead girl trope is a cliche because we, as the audience, recognize the pattern and no longer pay attention to the details.
Another good example of a cliche is “cold as ice” as a metaphor to describe a person. Many writers have worked hard to find just the right metaphor… only to end up with a cliche. Because cliches are true:
A person who is impossible to get to know well because they are stiff, and hard. They don’t seem to have any emotions. They are “cold”. Being near them is uncomfortable because you want to pull away from them. Even the pores in your skin seem to pull together to try to keep them away. It actually hurts to touch them (emotionally), because they are so hard and cold. They are like a block of ice.
There is a wealth of sensual detail in the cliche “cold as ice”. The problem is not the metaphor is “cheap” or untrue. The problem is that it is so familiar to us that we don’t even bother to think about what it means. It is short-hand… Even if it took the poet a half hour to land on the image, having come at it from a very original angle.
As playwrights, we don’t want our audience to skim over the text because it is so familiar.
We want our character’s voices to really communicate the richness of their experience.
“There is a time and a place for everything”:
It could be you create a character who talks in nothing but cliches.