Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.
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…
Every writer loves to write, but with the best intentions, ‘stuff’ can get in our way.
Here are the six writing blocker personality types. Which is your favorite?
You have an ‘amazing’ story idea, but you become distracted with how ‘amazing’ your life will be once you are a famous writer…
You have motivation, you have ideas…but ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life is demanding all your time!
You have ideas, but the ideas are so much fun…and you just want to think about them.
You want to write, you really do, but there are too many distractions in your life.
Or a snack!
Or a snooze!
The blank page
You’ve got nothing <sigh>. Absolutely nothing.
The cat wrangler!
The writing planets are aligned…unfortunately, there is something furry lying all over your keyboard.
While nothing can replace an editor, there is certainly a lot you can do yourself before it reaches a professional’s hands to get your work into shape.
And your beta readers will thank you!
I’m definitely not claiming that this is the perfect way to self-edit, nor the only way! But this is what works for me.
What’s wrong with just reading it?
I am brilliant at spotting typos and editing errors in other people’s work.
I am utterly useless at spotting them in my own!
I do know a number of ‘lucky’ individuals who can spot what’s wrong in their own work…but this is not me. Once I have submerged myself in my story, I am pretty much blinded to a myriad of problems from that awkward sentence to that typo to using the wrong word!
So, I have an editing routine, and that forces me to explore my work in a way that brings the issues to the surface.
What tools do I use?
Word: I use Scrivener for writing, but I still copy and paste the manuscript into word between each round of editing.
Why do I like Word? Because Word still picks up a good number of simple defects, and if you are anything like me, you only need to look at a sentence to introduce a typo.
And it takes no more than 15-30 mins to check the whole manuscript!
Hemingway: Simple to use and cheap! I bought the desktop version, but you can use it on-line for free.
Why do I like Hemingway? It’s great for picking up passive voice, adverbs, and unnecessary words. A quick pass through Hemingway a chapter at a time clears out a lot of garbage from my work.
Grammarly: Simple to use, but with costs (monthly / quarterly / yearly subscription).
Why do I like Grammarly? It picks up an interesting set of errors that complements the Hemingway findings. For example word choice / better word pair / wrong word. I have also found it to be reasonable on grammar. I will do a more in-depth review of Grammarly in another blog post. It’s excellent for that first draft!
The sequence of editing.
The high-level activities
- Read the whole manuscript looking for plot holes (optional)
- The spreadsheet – list of words and phrases that are my personal weak spots
- Read and correct a chapter at a time
- Read the whole manuscript
Let’s get into the details…
I have managed to stop myself editing-as-I-go, which means the chapters can be in a pretty grim state when I start editing.
There is a temptation to jump into reading at this point. But again, I have found it more effective to get on with my editing routine. Things that are missing in the overall plot do still become apparent even without doing a whole read, BUT, I’m going to put it as an optional here as long as the first read doesn’t turn into a random editing session.
1. (Optional) Read the whole book looking for plot holes. No editing yet!
2. Search for the words and phrases on my spreadsheet. So what is my mysterious spreadsheet you might be wondering. Well, it’s a list of words and phrases I have noted to search for in my work.
For example crutch words like ‘just’.
There are over 200 different words and phrases I look for!
It’s not always a seek and destroy, some of the words or phrases just lend themselves to a poorly written sentence. Whenever I find them I can reassess that sentence and tighten it up. I’ll give you a couple more of my examples, however, I would suggest that any such ‘seek’ list is a personal list a writer builds up over time in relation to their own writing style and their own weak spots when drafting
- Nodding, shaking head and other visuals. We all have our favourites, and most real people nod far less than you realize. Do a bit of people watching, you will be surprised!
- Feel, feeling, felt – what is it they are feeling and is there a stronger word choice that will cover this (he felt sorry for them = he pitied them). Some of these may also indicate telling, such as ‘he looked angry’. I also search for ‘look, looked, looking’!
3. Put the whole manuscript through Word. By the time I have finish hacking the sentences about it’s usually in a bit of a state and a quick 30 mins to run it through word again will help.
4. Hemingway: Chapter at a time. Looking for passive voice, unnecessary words, adverbs.
5. Grammarly: Chapter at a time. Looking for passive voice, grammar, better words, wrong words etc.
6. Word again! Because I have an amazing ability to reintroduce spaces or typos!
7. Listen using text to speech: OMG this is the absolute best for spotting those sneaky missing words or even wrong words where autocorrect has jumped in.
8. Read a chapter at a time. REPEATEDLY. And keep adjusting those awkward sentences. Until I am 90% happy. (I say 90% because otherwise I would never finish!)
- I also check for unnecessary backstory at this point…if in doubt hack it out!
9. Word again!
10. Text to speech again!
Now I can read the whole book from start to finish: By this point most (but certainly not all) errors will have gone such that I can at least read it with a level of flow. If you are anything like me there are many more iterations of reading.
And then you send it out to Beta readers.
And then you change it!
And then you edit all over again!
I do hope you found some of this useful! Happy editing 🙂
If you want to try Hemingway or Grammarly, here are the links:
Love it or loathe it, it’s a necessary part of the writing process. But it does present some challenges.
Life is sweet…
“Oh, look at that sentence.
So beautiful and so perfect!
Who says you can’t write a sentence right the first time, go me!”
“Why did I put that comma there?”
“Nope, it was right before.”
“Nope, it’s a semicolon!”
…replaces with a semicolon
“It works better as two sentences. Ha!”
…splits into two sentences
…removes all punctuation and joins using an ‘and’
“Why do I have three sentences in a row starting with ‘He’!”
“I don’t like that word…it feels clunky…I need a better word.”
…puts original words back
When nothing works…
“OMG! This sentence is so bad! What the bloody hell was a trying to say!”
…changes to internal thoughts
…gives to another character as speach
“OMG!!! I hate this sentence!”
Writing in the modern era is very different to writing even fifty years ago. Technology, lifestyle, attitudes, and education have all played an important role.
Writing today ought to be easier, better and faster. But is this really so?
Not so very long ago if you wanted to research something you…
a) Asked someone older and wiser (and trusted that they were not making the answer up)
b) Went to the library (assuming it was opening time)
c) Dragged out your Encyclopaedia Britannica (if you were lucky enough to have the set—or half the set…)
Research is infinitely easier in the modern world, all courtesy of the internet. For example, the other day I needed to find out how best and practically to carry an unconscious body on a horse—voila! Thus, providing a demonstration of why a writer’s internet history should never be used in a court of law.
As a scrivener fan, I like to think I have embraced the benefits of modern day writing tools. Not so very long ago you were lucky if you had Microsoft Word. Not much help in structure or planning, but at least it can fix some of the typos and grammar, and for many writers it still holds pride of place. Prior to the introduction of computers, you probably used a typewriter! And before that pencil or quill and paper! And before that a hammer and chisel!
The modern world contains a vast and ever emerging array of distractions. To compensate we deploy a vast and ever emerging array of distraction mitigating techniques! Sometimes our techniques work, and sometimes they don’t…I am pretty sure me writing this blog post is a distraction…and so is you reading it!
Education is not such a clear cut conclusion for me. In some ways, the modern world with all its spell checkers and text talk jargon has depleted our basic writing skills. But, there is also an amazing array of blogs (except this one, which is in the above ‘distraction’ classification), free education, books, and other material available via the internet, and to a far wider portion of the population.
The time to write…
If you were a 15th century crofter, the chances are you probably couldn’t read and were far too busy tending to your turnips to dedicate time to writing. Even a hundred years ago the average person worked a 7 day week with little energy or enthusiasm for embracing their creative side. But, for many people in the modern world we have plenty of opportunity to write, although many of us who are not full time writers would definitely still like a lot more 🙂
Whatever the time or place, there have always been storytellers. They just did not necessarily write. I think the concept of the story and the storyteller has been part of human culture for as far back as we have considered ourselves to be human.
Our attitude to writing has changed over the ages though, and I believe we are far more prolific writers now than we have ever been, and that makes me wonder where we will go to next. Perhaps we will simply project our thoughts onto pages, or perhaps writing as we know it now will ultimately disappear.
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Many people aspire to write a book, and most have no idea where to start. There are many ways to become a writer, but they all come down to one important activity…
Tip 1: Write stuff…
I am a great believer in not trying to eat the whole elephant. If you want to be a writer, and to write a book, you have to start by writing stuff. Unconstrained, nonsense, and whatever pops into your head. Try different genres and styles. Try for something short, and then try for something long.
After about 20 years of doing this…just kidding! After doing this for a while, which will be different for every writer, you start to get the hang of writing, and something interesting starts to unfold…which is usually a story idea.
Tip 2: When you get a story idea…
Maybe you have spent a bit of time at Tip 1, playing about with ideas before you find something that might work out into an actual story.
Or maybe you are the sort of person who wants to jump straight in at Tip 2 because you already know a story and you are chomping-at-the-bit to get it down. Let’s PAUSE. If this is your first ever story idea treat it as a bit of fun, and don’t be too disheartened if it becomes nothing more than ‘Tip 1 -stuff’ that ultimately you discard.
However you find yourself at Tip 2, there is no point in holding back. Write it, or plan it then write it, whatever works for you. One of two things will happen at this point:
- You realise this is a GREAT story idea and that it will pan out into an awesome book
- You get bored and realise it was FUN but it’s not worth pursuing, or not at this time, because you have just had another story idea that might be better still.
Tip 3: When you get an awesome story idea…
Usually you know when an idea for a story is something worthy of pursuit. Now you have to decide whether you need to plan or not. Planning is a matter of personal taste, some people swear by planning, some people loath it with the enthusiasm of a dental appointment.
For planning: People who get the most out of planning are the people who suffer from writers block. If you are the kind of person who finds themselves hemmed in when writing, or not sure what should happen next, planning is GOOD for you. It lets you nut out all the problems upfront so you don’t waste time on something that will go nowhere. Better to tackle all the blocks now than write 30k of words and discover you just don’t have a solution to a key plot point.
Against planning: People who never run out of ideas, who are always chasing the next shiny notion…and could simply write forever! If this is you STOP, and go back to the planning. This may sound harsh, but people with too many ideas suffer from a completely different problem to those who suffer from writers block, and that is what I refer to as ‘Infinite Story Syndrome’ also known as the ’10 book saga’. There is nothing wrong with ten book sagas I love ’em myself. But each book needs a level of conclusion and a little bit of planning, even for the idea masters, goes a long way to getting a good first book.
PS. There is a happy medium..and yes planning will help them too.
Tip 4: Get feedback sooner rather than later…
A trusted friend or confidant is what every writer needs. Someone to sanity check your idea to make sure it’s not a complete dud. Once it is drafted look for beta readers. They will be delighted to pick holes in your plot and make it stronger in doing so.
Tip 5: There is nothing wrong with trying…
I must have a couple of hundred story ideas floating about in bits, scribbled dialog, plot points, and random chapters. All of which were great for my ‘Tip 1-Write Stuff’. I only finished 3 books completely to the draft stage. It was the 3rd one I decided I liked enough to edit, and I am now about to publish. The first 2 drafts—I am going to abandon—and I feel no guilt in that.
I have subsequently finished writing the next 3 books in the series. I spent a lot of time ‘writing stuff’, playing about with ‘story ideas’ and I even drafted a couple of ‘awesome story ideas’ into a full novel, before I found a book I felt worthy of publishing, and I don’t regret any of this time. It helped me to find my writers voice. I had fun. It gave me confidence.
Tip 6: Quality is never a waste of time…
I learnt a massive amount about quality by having my book professionally edited…grammar is definitely not my strong point! A writing course if you can afford it is worth while, but otherwise there is a ton of fantastic free information on the internet, and plenty of great books you can buy to improve your skills that way. No time spent on improving your writing quality is ever wasted time.
Tip 7: Simply read…
The last tip goes without saying…but just in case…when you settle on a genre, read it—a lot.
More more posts on writing…
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