Why Tropes Are the Building Blocks of Great Stories

I happened upon this article recently, 7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using. It’s a list of common fantasy tropes and the reasons why the author is bored with them.

The article niggled at me.

After reading it a few times, I discovered why. It wouldn’t matter which trope the author included on the list, I would still feel the same way.

Tropes should not be avoided.

Tropes are critical.

Tropes are the way we understand stories as writers and readers.

Tropes should be explored and studied, understood and then transcended. That’s how great stories are told, even with the most familiar of tropes.

Let’s take a closer look.

What Is A Trope?

Tropes are conventions. Tropes are expectations. Tropes are familiar characters, situations, plot devices. Tropes are devices, motifs.

Tropes can be visual aspects of genre – black and white hats in old Westerns, for example.

Tropes can be thematic aspects of a genre – the sympathetic Native American in revisionist Westerns, for example.

There’s a secondary definition of the trope in the literary sense that aligns it close to a metaphor, an example of figurative speech. The two definitions are closely related, but we’re going with the first, broader sense here.

What A Trope Is Not?

A trope is not a bad thing.

In writing circles, it’s not uncommon to come across writers who say they want to avoid tropes. That’s fine. Good luck.

I think of these writers in the same way as I think of writers who say they don’t want to write within a genre. These writers do not understand genre and the fluid, permeable nature of genre’s so-called boundaries.

Tropes are everywhere. Interpreting tropes is how we consume stories and understand them. Tropes are how we’re able to choose the next story we’d like to consume be that a book, a film or anything else.

Tropes are how we know which stories we might like to write.

What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliché?

When a lot of writers claim they avoid tropes, and even genres, what they really mean is that they’re avoiding cliché. And that’s a different matter.

A cliché is a trope that has become so frequently used in the same repetitive way that it has lost all power. It’s not interesting, it’s too familiar to have any impact.

This is where tropes get dangerous, and I think what a lot of writers are thinking of when they say they want to avoid tropes. I suspect the author of the previously mentioned article was thinking of clichés, not tropes.

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How Tropes Improve Our Writing

Satisfying Readers From the Beginning by Delivering On Expectations

Understanding how the different tropes work is a sure fire way of handing a reader what they expect, which in a lot of cases is exactly what a reader wants.

This is closely related to the whole idea of writing to market – fulfilling expectations.

A romance reader picks up a romance book, and they’re expecting and wanting to see a couple overcome obstacles and fall in love. Some romance sub-categories demand that couple live happily ever after (an HEA is an actual romance subgenre) because that’s what the reader wants to read. The HEA is a trope.

Subverting Tropes

Innovative stories happen when tropes are turned on their head, just a little bit so that expectations are still met, but with a surprising twist. You see this a lot in speculative fiction. The “Our Vampires Are Different” trope is a good example.

Beware: the twisted trope can become its own cliché. A different vampire is not enough to make for a good vampire story (*cough* Twilight *cough* – I should say, though, that the success of Twilight had little if anything to do with the differences in the vampire species, but that’s another story altogether). I wrote a little deeper on this in 10 Reasons Why Your Writing Sucks and What You Can Do to Make it Not.

Embracing and Acknowledging Tropes

I thought a lot about urban fantasy tropes when I started Guessing Tales. I’ve voraciously consumed the genre most of my life and I wanted to create a world that fulfils every urban fantasy trope there is, but I wanted to make it unique.

I want readers to know straight up these are urban fantasy books. I want readers to know that I’m using their beloved tropes, but at the same time, I want to show that I am not just stringing a bunch of clichéd devices together to create my world.

One way I get around this is to have my characters react to the tropes, to call out their familiarity.

In Eyes of the Jaguar, my POV character muses on why city wharves always attract the nasty things. It’s a trope in a lot of literature, urban fantasy or otherwise, books and movies – bad stuff goes down at the wharves. My character wonders if it might be a sailor thing, bringing in another trope that has nothing to do with the urban genre. Straight away this undermines the cliché of using wharves as a setting for bad guy action.

Similarly, I have this same character refer to genres in her life and situations. She describes another character as an action movie cliché. In another scene, she refers to her unfortunate romantic situation as an adolescent romance saga.

By referencing the cliche potential, the cliché is disavowed of its negative power.

Clichés are boring, and calling them out on that fact while you’re dancing in their territory is one way to make them less so and still get away with using the original power they possessed as tropes.

The important thing to remember here, is that one person’s cliché might be another person’s most favourite trope.

Write the story you want to write. Embrace your tropes and lay them on thick.

If you truly understand the function of tropes both in your story and in the wider culture you’re writing in, there’s no way to go wrong.

RESOURCE TIP: By far the best way to understand tropes is to consume everything ever written in your genre. Or, check out www.tvtropes.com. TV Tropes is a masterful study of tropes in popular culture. It’s very casual and often funny, but the wisdom in its pages is undeniable. Each listing ends with a handy reference of different media (books, movies, comics, TV, everything) where specific trope examples are used. Check it out!

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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2 Responses to “Why Tropes Are the Building Blocks of Great Stories

  • If you come at genre from poetry, you get to practice reading and writing in very specific forms that shout meaning in their departures. It is when the author understands tropes and departs from them intentionally, and with the idea of emphasis or other purposes, well, that’s what results in something extraordinary, or at least, interesting.

    • Kate Krake
      5 months ago

      Very true. Innovation and creativity always comes from what’s already familiar.

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