Every genre and medium of storytelling uses tropes, common themes or story devices. For example, a popular trope in the romance genre is “enemies to lovers,” where the characters start as enemies before falling in love.
Most articles we come across in the writing world discuss avoiding tropes. After all, they can be the result of lazy writing and lead to predictability in our stories.
However, tropes aren’t all bad. In fact, we usually can’t avoid including at least a few in our writing. So how can we make tropes work for our story?
Why Can’t We Completely Avoid Tropes?
Tropes are some of the building blocks of storytelling. No matter which way we turn with our story’s draft, that choice likely plays into a trope.
For example, let’s say we need to add stakes or an element of character growth to our hero’s motivation before the big showdown at the climax. There’s a good chance that whatever event we choose to enact that change is a trope:
- Mentor dying? That’s a trope.
- Loved one threatened? Trope
- Ultimatum from someone with power? Trope
- And so on…
Stories are made of tropes in the same way that trees are made of wood. We can’t avoid tropes because they’re part of what we use to build our stories.
So Why Does Advice Warn Us about Tropes?
Given that tropes are a normal element of storytelling, why does most advice focus on avoiding them? Like with any aspect of writing, we can fall into lazy habits when it comes to tropes.
Being lazy with the use of tropes means that we end up with a too-predictable story. Or that we’re relying so much on trope formulas that the story itself fails to show rather than tell. In short, a lazy use of tropes can lead to boring, unengaging, and formulaic stories, not to mention disappointed readers.
For example, a common trope with sports or team-focused stories is that a group of underdog misfits manages to win an important competition against all the odds. A lazy use of the trope would set up the situation of the underdog misfits, throw in a superficial lesson about them learning to value teamwork, and then expect the reader to buy into their sudden success just because everyone knows that’s how the trope plays out.
In other words, tropes are bad when we as storytellers rely on them to carry the work of the story. Just because readers know an enemies-to-lovers romance story ends with the characters getting together, that doesn’t mean the storyteller can skip out on doing the work to show the audience—and make them believe—the characters have actually overcome their incompatible goals and found common ground.
Some Predictability Is Good
The promises at the heart of each genre—happy-ending romances, solved mysteries, and vanquished thriller villains—help define the genre, so it’s obviously not always bad for readers to know how to fill in the blanks. Similarly, story tropes help readers know what kind of story we’re going to tell, what they can expect on our pages.
So we wouldn’t want to avoid all tropes, even if we could, as tropes are often why readers like a story—they want the type of story that comes with that trope. Many romance readers love the enemies-to-lovers trope so much that they pick up any book with that trope. Personally, I’m a sucker for the fake-dating trope in romance stories.
The trick is finding the right balance to that predictability. Readers want to be able to predict our story enough to know that it will appeal to them. But readers also want their expectations met in a surprising way.
3 Ways to Improve Our Use of Tropes
- Think: Similar But Different
To find the right balance of predictability, we can’t just lazily follow a trope’s formula. We need to take the usual trope ideas and play with them. Twist them. Turn them on their head.
The first Iron Man movie took the superhero origin story and twisted it by making the protagonist unworthy of his powers. Rather than being a relatable every-man, Tony Stark was an anti-hero.
- Layer Tropes to Create Unique Stories
Stories can be less predictable if we use more tropes. Layering story elements and expectations can make them interact in interesting and surprising ways.
The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa layers tons of tropes: office romance (the couple has to work together on a project), forbidden romance (the hero is her ex-fiancé’s brother), enemies-to-lovers (the brother is the one who broke them up…at the altar), fake dating (as they do research for their project), just-one-bed (during said research), and so on. Together, those layers create a unique story with an unpredictable path to the genre’s expected happily ever after.
- Focus on Relatability
Tropes often make our story more relatable to readers. After all, in real life, we go down to the basement to fix the burned-out lightbulb, no matter how many horror movies we’ve seen. Or even if readers haven’t experienced the trope themselves, the predictability of it can still help create that all-important connection between characters and readers.
That’s why tropes can be a marketing point for our book, letting potential readers know what to expect from our story. We might use our story’s tropes to develop the back-of-the-book blurb. Or we might allude to our story’s tropes in marketing materials.
With the right attitude toward tropes, we can improve our storytelling and appeal to readers. *smile* Do you have any questions or insights about tropes and how to use them?
Resident Writing Coach
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Donetta Sifford says
I am so glad that through basic scrolling I discovered your website on Writer’s Digest. Reading your advice and following resources has been helpful to me in a huge way. Thank you for your time you put into all this!
BECCA PUGLISI says
I’m so glad you found us—and on Writer’s Digest, no less :). I hope you find what you’re looking for here.
Jami Gold says
After writing this post for Angela and Becca, I was inspired to expand on the “similar but different” method listed above. Check out my companion post on my own site for 4 ways to twist a trope: https://jamigold.com/2020/12/how-to-make-the-most-of-our-storys-tropes/ 😉
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
BECCA PUGLISI says
Such a great post, Jami. I love the idea for layering tropes to keep the story from predictability. I’m so glad you’re part of our team :).
Jami Gold says
Yes, as soon as we layer tropes, they’re going to interact in ways unique to our story and characters, so it’s a great (and easy) way to break out from cliches. 🙂
And thank you–I love knowing you both! <3
Michele Helsel says
I would love a book on tropes for every genre. Does that exist? Good article above. Thank you!
Jami Gold says
I don’t know of a book, Michele, but if you do a Google search on trope lists, including searches like “X genre tropes”, you can find lots of resources. And then of course, there’s the whole TV Tropes website. 😉