I’ve recently been planning a new novel. I’ve done this a little differently from my previous attempts in that I’ve looked at it partially from a tropes perspective. When I say tropes, I don’t necessarily mean clichés. We’ve learned to consider clichés bad because they represent plot points that have been overdone to the point where they’ve become boring and repetitive. Some tropes can become clichés, certainly, but not all tropes are in and of themselves clichés.
So, what the hell are tropes?
Tropes are deconstructions of plot elements, character archetypes and genre conventions. They’re infinitely interesting and useful. They don’t exist statically, but are ever-changing and evolving, as writing itself is. New tropes can be created and defined as new ideas and conventions come into being. Most likely you already have an innate sense of tropes. You probably understand them on an unconscious level and know how to utilise them already. When it comes to defining tropes, it’s more about giving a name to something you may already know. This will help you understand and define your own ideas more clearly.
Tropes are certain literary conventions more like building blocks or puzzle pieces than clichés. A trope in and of itself is never bad. Rather, it’s how it’s used that can be considered good or bad in the narrative sense. If you’ve spent some time on the TVTropes website, you’ll know what this means. By the way, that site is a vast abyss of interesting links, visit at your own discretion!
Personally, I love tropes. You may not, and that’s great! It’s fine to dislike the idea of reading a story created using them. It could feel false to some people. But it’s important to understand that whether or not you do it deliberately, you are using your knowledge of tropes when you read, and that is a good thing.
Recognising tropes: You probably know more than you think
As readers we often (consciously or unconsciously) look for tropes when browsing for new books to read. We pick up the book due to the cover or title and read the blurb looking for those keywords that signal to us that we might enjoy this story. Growing up reading books, we learned to recognise the elements in stories we enjoyed and slowly but surely began selecting new books to read based on whether they contained these elements. The best type of story is one that contains all the tropes we love used in ways we haven’t seen before. There are also ways of deliberately twisting tropes and reversing them, and that can also be enjoyable.
A firm knowledge of tropes can be a double edged sword. While it’s fun to know and recognise tropes, it can sometimes ruin your enjoyment of a story if you find it becoming too predictable. This is when tropes can fall into the realm of the cliché. They become formulaic and overused. The writer has used them in specific patterns that end up more like a template for a story, rather than an original story. This is not always bad. We like familiar things, especially if we are going to invest several hours reading them. But seeing the same pattern repeated too often with little to no variation can certainly ruin your enjoyment of the story.
So, how are tropes used?
What about using tropes as a writer? A working knowledge of tropes can be a benefit to an author. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever memorise them all, I don’t have nearly enough free time, but knowing and understanding the basics helps me construct a story that may be at least a little different from the norm.
Learning to recognise my favourite tropes has helped me focus my writing. Researching tropes helps me avoid repeating the same patterns, and helps me to construct a story I know will be well received by a particular audience. On the flip side, it could also help me write in an unfamiliar genre if I’m feeling up for a change. If I usually write NA Fantasy but feel like taking a dip into Noir, I could research the tropes. I’ll probably end up with an idea of the genre conventions and very likely a good place to start my story.
As I consider the plot of the book I want to write, I’m choosing which archetypes, plot elements and tropes to include. I’m thinking of how to combine them in ways I find interesting and maybe a little different. How to subvert them so that the end result is perhaps not what the reader was expecting even as it’s still familiar. How to make the reader believe that I have included a specific trope only to reveal that it was another one all along… you get the idea.
Those tasty flipped expectations. So delicious!
My absolute favourite, what gives me a kick as a story-teller, is subverting tropes. I’ve touched on it above, but really, it’s the heart of why I love knowing tropes. For example, many tropes are partially defined by gender. As writing evolves, it’s becoming more common to see gender-neutral versions of tropes emerge, but some are still firmly tied to gender. The merits of this could be endlessly debated. The fact that some tropes are male or female specific is a reflection of the way stories have been told up to now. It’s changing, which can only be for the good.
That being said, I love the idea of subverting the gender stereotypes of certain tropes. I love changing them enough so that they’re fresh and different but still familiar enough to be recognisable. It plays with expectations. When you read a story, which follows a familiar pattern you begin to expect certain things to happen. I call this “Knowledge: Plot”, a term coined in a past D&D game as a Bard skill. But it very much exists in real life. The more common name would likely be ‘genre conventions’ or again, tropes. The best possible thing for me as a writer is to take these expectations and flip them. To hint at the familiar while in fact giving my reader something new. Or the same trope from a different perspective.
Take this traveller, it’s dangerous to go alone!
And so, armed with valuable knowledge, the Chosen One set forth on their Epic Quest! Along the way they were sure to meet many new and interesting characters! The inevitable Eccentric Mentor, who would guide them for roughly thirty percent of their journey. Perhaps they would meet a Gentle Giant, or a Knight in Shining Armour? Maybe an Anti-Hero with a Heart of Gold? Surely, there would be a Love Interest, or perhaps a Sultry Seductress to tempt them from their course? There will definitely be a Dragon, then ultimately a Big Bad. If they’re lucky, the Dragon will have a convenient Heel Face Turn just at the moment The Chosen One needs help. But in the end, our hero and companions will likely end up defeating the Big Bad… only to find out that they summoned an Eldritch Horror just before the end.
At face value, the above paragraph might seem terrible. Who would want to read such a predictable book? But if you take a closer look you may realise that the best part of it is that the tropes could be anything. This is a formula, a very simple recipe. The point isn’t to follow it slavishly, but to substitute your own ingredients to come up with something unique to you.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Hero’s Journey. It’s more or less the same thing. Most of the stories we read follow it to one extent or another. If done well, these elements are not immediately recognisable. In the end, the patterns of stories are good. They’re what we want when we pick up a book in our favourite genre, but we like to try out new flavours, see new colours or faces on familiar archetypes.
Tropes are the foundations upon which writers build their stories. They come in many shapes and sizes but ultimately, it’s up to the builder to create something magnificent. The materials will only get a writer so far. A shoddy foundation will inevitably show even with the best quality materials. Building something reasonably identical to another construct is also obvious. The tropes, the raw materials, can be used to construct something beautiful. Something unique to each story-teller. Something that shows us all what kind of story the writer enjoys telling. Who knows, if they’re skilled or lucky, they might just hit on that winning combination of tropes that captures the hearts of readers everywhere.