Today I want to talk about tropes. When to use them, when not to use them, and the vast gray quagmire that exists between.
What is a literary trope?
In the literary sense, a trope is a common theme, plot point, event or motif within a story.
What is the problem with using a trope?
There is nothing wrong with using a common trope, there are oodles of them out there and we love them, which I will explore in more detail below. The problem is only when they are overused…badly.
They make us groan, switch off, or even reach for the nearest trashcan to dispense of the literary waste.
Overused tropes and writing clichés are boring, disappointing, and leave the reader feeling cheated.
So, we should never use a trope?
Here is where it starts to get a little gray and fuzzy. It’s pretty difficult to think of something completely original and new. Humans take comfort in a story that triggers a familiar spark in our imaginations. Fairy tales and fables are the ultimate tropes, and even as adults we are happy to read them again and again.
Tropes become tropes, well, because fundamentally they are appealing:
- They present us with the ultimate challenge > zombies hunger for human flesh or aliens experimenting on humans
- They appeal to our sense of good and happiness > boy meets girl and lives happily ever after
- They identify stereotypes > grumpy boss, evil drug kingpin, nerdy IT student
The good the bad and the ugly…😱
“I can’t believe they did that. It was sooooo obvious!
Avoid overused character tropes like the plague!
Many bad tropes relate to characters, not all, but certainly many do. Not every character has to break the stereotype—I used to work in IT and I can definitely confirm that some stereotypes have a foundation in reality! But deviating from cliché characters can deliver amazing results when done right.
Look what happened when a desperate school teacher dying of cancer became a drug kingpin? Walter White is the ultimate anti-trope character and Breaking Bad was a huge success for exactly this reason.
Tropes we still love…Zombies want to eat us
The flesh-eating zombie trope has been, well, done to death if you’ll excuse the pun. But we still love this trope…there are books and books of this trope and I don’t think our enthusiasm for zombies has yet to show signs of decline. Sure, we can mix it up but fundamentally zombies love eating human flesh and we are still reading about it.
Tropes we love to hate…UFO abductions
Unlike the zombie trope, which might still have a little life left, excuse the pun! Aliens abductions has tipped over the other side. A couple of decades ago this might have been more common, but the basic alien abduction is definitely in decline.
A trope, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, avoiding any familiarity in a book or story is near impossible, and the occasional deviation towards trope-land isn’t going to kill your creation…but too much of it will. The subtle ways in which we explore our writing and challenge ourselves when it comes to tropes and clichés can make an average story, great. Not every character has to break the mould, not every plot point has to be unique (nor can it be!), but within those bounds we should strive to remain vigilant for clichés, and enrich our writing with events, people and circumstance that reflect the diverse and surprising nature of real life.
What are your favorite tropes?
What tropes do you love to hate?
Some great articles on tropes…
Six Unrealistic Tropes and How to Avoid Them
5 Clichés To Avoid In Your Fantasy Novel
Ten tropes you’ll find in science fiction – over and over again