The Trouble with Tropes

And yes. This title is totally a play on my favorite Star Trek episode ever, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

But that aside, today I want to talk about tropes. I’ve been noticing a trend among readers, writers, and audiences of all kinds in voicing an opinion that tropes are bad. But this reasoning has one serious flaw, and I’d like to discuss that today. Tropes exist and repeat themselves for reasons. They aren’t good or bad, they just are. It’s how writers use them that can make or break it.

Let’s take a step back for a second and actually define a trope.

Trope: A pattern or recognizable part of a story, character, etc. that occurs across shows so often that readers and viewers can predict these patterns. These have been made pretty famous by the advent of the TV Tropes website, which lists many common (and less common) tropes.

As I said above, writers seem to be growing more afraid of using tropes in their work. But there’s just one problem. As Brandon Sanderson says,

“Everything is a trope.”
~Brandon Sanderson, Writing Excuses season 13 episode 35, “Cliche vs. Archetype” (a podcast you should absolutely listen to, since it’s 15 minutes per episode and oh-so-valuable to writers)

And how about this post I found on Tumblr recently:

Do you see the issue here? There is very little that is new under the sun, and tropes are things that have become integral to every story. There are so many tropes, in fact, that I would challenge you to find just one story of any length or genre that has absolutely no trope or variation on a trope in it. Hint: if one exists, I can’t find it. And you probably won’t either. But please tell me if you do; I’d love to read it.

Here’s the thing. The problem isn’t with the existence of tropes. It’s with the overuse of tired, worn-out or problematic tropes.

So how do we, as writers, evaluate our work when writing and revising? When do we consider removing a trope? How can you tell if a trope you want to use is something you should avoid or retire?

  1. It’s overdone. Think about recent stories that have been released. What tropes do they have? How have readers responded to them? Take a love triangle, for instance. They were HUGE for a while, but readers are starting to burn out on them. There is also a lot of polarization around it, so you know that some will love it and some will hate it. You need to be okay with whatever reaction you get to the tropes you use.
  2. It perpetuates hate or harmful stereotypes. Let’s face it: there are far too many tropes that support racism, sexism, and other -isms. One I hate is the girl with the glasses trope: a girl removes her glasses and is suddenly beautiful. It’s so harmful, saying that smart girls aren’t pretty, smart girls wear glasses, or you can’t be pretty with glasses. Another related one was discussed pretty extensively by Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Please read this and watch this (they are basically the same, but in different format, for whatever preference you have). It is so worth your time, and I’m not sure anyone has discussed the “pretty vs. smart female” trope better, and how it’s been handled in Hollywood, specifically. But writers are just as guilty of these issues.
  3. Reactions of your beta readers and critique partners say “no”. This is a much deeper topic, but basically, here’s the idea: if your readers are having strong reactions, figure out why. Ask them. Take their comments to heart and decide how to handle them. And maybe it will mean removing a trope or shelving the book altogether.

Here’s another simple question: how do you take something inherently prone to cliche and make it fresh and new? There are two major methods (there could be more, but these are the two I am familiar with):

  1. Context. Trope context is when you use a trope as it is but change the context so that it feels fresh, not tired, old, or cliche. For example, an “after the apocalypse” setting has become pretty common to dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction (it’s right in the names). But a reader will be more willing to forgive jumping into this worn trope if you make it somehow unique. One example I can think of is the Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer. It is post-apocalyptic, but the catastrophe is from a meteor knocking the moon closer to the Earth. It’s not something you see every day, unlike nuclear war post-apocalyptic fiction. Another excellent excellent example I can’t praise enough is the Ashfall trilogy by Mike Mullin, which takes place after the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolacano (read it!). It is packed full of tropes, but they are so well done and in such a unique and well-thought-out setting that they are some of my all-time favorite books. You have to give readers something special to make the predictability of the story worthwhile. Because let’s face it: tropes mean the reader knows what’s coming.
  2. Subversion. Contrary to context, where you use the trope as is, subversion is when you actively twist the expectation. For example (to use Brandon Sanderson’s example from the Writing Excuses podcast I referenced above), rather than killing the dragon, which everyone expects from the trope that is the Hero’s Journey, the character releases the dragon. It subverts the expectations and makes the story feel new.

There is seriously so much to unpack with tropes, but the takeaway I want you to have is this:

Tropes are not bad, but they must be used with intentionality and sensitivity.

You must pay attention to the tropes you are using and the impact they will have on your readers. You must pay attention to the amount the trope has been used in other media. If you fail to pay attention, you are setting your story up to fail and disappoint readers.

So there you have it! I will probably continue visiting some of my favorite and least favorite tropes in the future, but for now, tell me your thoughts! What comments do you have about tropes? What tropes do you hate or love? Tell me why in the comments!



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