Writing With Tropes 101
Lately, the word trope has been flying around the book social media sphere. You can hardly watch a review or even read a description without the word popping up again and again.
But though the word has surged in popularity this year when it comes to books, it’s existed since the twelfth century, according to Merriam-Webster. It’s actually a pretty old word!
So what are tropes, and what do they have to do with your writing? That’s what we’re here to answer today.
What are tropes?
Tropes are artistic themes or devices that occur repeatedly in different works. In books, this includes character archetypes, plot points, situations, or themes. Every work of art is full of tropes, and once you realize that certain tropes exist, you’ll start to see them everywhere.
But maybe some examples would be helpful:
In fantasy novels, a common trope is addictive magic, where characters find themselves unable to resist using magic of some kind. The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings is probably the most classic example of this trope.
In science fiction, games coming to life—where a game either starts to invade the real world or the characters are sucked into a game—is a trope that’s become more and more popular recently. A good example of this is Jumanji.
The damsel in distress is a common character trope across all genres, in which a female character is put in danger and must be saved by another character (usually male). I’m sure you can come up with plenty of your own examples, especially from fairy tales.
A plot trope that gets used quite often is don’t go into the woods, in which there’s a forest that the characters are forbidden from entering, but end up entering anyway for story reasons. The Forbidden Forest from Harry Potter is an easy example of this.
If you sat down to count, there would probably be hundreds of thousands if not millions of tropes. Everything you’ve ever read involves tropes in some capacity, and is likely filled with them if you know what to look for.
Some writers find this knowledge alarming, and they ask panicked questions like:
Are tropes the same as clichés?
There’s some overlap here. All clichés are tropes, but not all tropes are clichés. In other words, a cliché is a trope that gets used so often that readers are bored of it, tired of it. They’ve seen it so many times that they don’t want to read about it anymore.
It’s important to remember that what’s cliché to one reader won’t be cliché to another. If someone reads a lot of fantasy featuring “chosen ones” (another common character trope), then they may think your chosen one story is cliché. But if someone new to the chosen one trope picks up your book, they may very well find it incredibly original and engaging.
Tropes by themselves are not clichés. They are only cliché in their relation to the reader and the context of their reading history.
It’s also important to remember that clichés go in cycles. Readers will get tired of one trope for a while, so it will be seen as cliché and drop out of popularity—recently, this has been true of vampire stories, YA dystopian fiction, and the chosen one character. But a while later, readers will no longer be tired of these tropes, and they will no longer be considered cliché.
Are tropes bad? Should I try to avoid them?
Tropes are not bad! Let’s put that to rest right now. In fact, tropes are true neutral, neither good nor bad. And I wouldn’t waste time trying to avoid them, either, because it’s impossible. The way readers understand and interpret stories is through tropes. You’ve certainly written them into your stories without even realizing it.
I postulate that a story with no tropes whatsoever (if it could even be written) would be utterly confusing for readers.
Instead, think of tropes as tools. Conscious use of tropes can help you guide your reader’s feelings, whether you want them to have the comfort of a familiar trope or the shock value of an expected trope turned on its head.
Tropes are also excellent for helping you find your ideal audience. Readers have likes and dislikes when it comes to tropes, so if you make some of your tropes (spoiler-free, of course) known to readers, you’ll be able to find the ones who are almost guaranteed to like your book.
How to use tropes: the basics.
There are many more different ways to deal with tropes than what I’ll list here, but I’ll get you started with a few of the basics. For the sake of illustration, let’s use the chosen one trope as an example throughout.
Play it straight.
Use the trope exactly like it’s usually used. Of course you’ll insert your own imagination and specific details to make it uniquely yours, but your character has still been chosen by some power to be the only one able to defeat the big bad, save the world, resolve the plot, etc., so that is what you’ll do with your story.
Instead of using the trope the typical way, flip it so that it’s the opposite of what would normally be done. Most chosen ones are destined to save the world, but what if your chosen one is destined to destroy it instead? There’s often more than one way to flip a trope. For example, the chosen one is usually meant to succeed in saving the world, but what if your chosen one is destined to fail, and nobody will let them go on the quest in the first place? Or what if your chosen one wasn’t chosen by someone else, but actually chose themselves?
Pull a switcheroo.
Make readers think that a certain trope is going to happen, but then have it not happen. This is great for twists, if you’re into those. In the case of the chosen one, maybe you spend most of the story convincing readers that the main character is the chosen one, but then at the end, one of the friend characters is actually the one to beat the big bad. Or maybe it turns out that there was no chosen one at all, and your character was just convinced they were the chosen one the entire time, until they found they couldn’t defeat the big bad.
Hang a lampshade on it.
Call attention to the fact that you’re using a trope. This is often used for humorous purposes, but it ultimately lets the reader know that you’re aware of what you’re doing and that it’s on purpose, even if it might seem too cliché or unlikely. For example, you might have a side character say something like “You’re the chosen one? I thought that was only in fantasy novels!” Or maybe the chosen one character might think, I feel like I’m in some kind of chosen one story.
These are just the basics of tropes, but I hope this has helped you out! If you want to learn more about tropes, I highly recommend tvtropes.org. But be careful! That place is a labyrinth—it’s easy to get lost in there and never find your way out!
If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: Tropes are everywhere, and there’s no need to avoid them. Instead, use them intentionally to your advantage!