Tropes — cultural references or recurrent themes imbued with shared meaning — can be a staple of storytelling (and a potential path to cliché).
Sometimes the exact right word is weighty enough to stand in for hundreds of words. These are words that invoke shared cultural references. If an author says, “our hero built his love a mansion to equal the Taj Mahal,” we already know a lot about him. “Taj Mahal” is a synonym for “big,” “expensive,” “ornate,” etc. It’s all of those descriptors combined and then some.
A special type of weighty word that is used all the time is a trope. Tropes draw on concepts we hear again and again in stories, whether in books, on TV, or in movies. Just the mention of “jock,” “princess,” or “mad scientist” is enough to trigger recognition of images, behaviors, and expectations.
The literary definition of a trope is any turn of phrase that isn’t literal. This can include things like metaphors, irony, and exaggeration, among the many ways to spice up how you say something. The more colloquial meaning is of a “common story element.”
Tropes are a staple of storytelling. They are the elements we sometimes love, sometimes hate. They are often specific to our culture, but universal ones exist and go all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle named the first ones in his book Poetics.
If modern culture had a ruling class of talking bees who were wizards and who pollinated flowers by means of transporter magic, we’d certainly have stories about them and lots of magic-talking-bee tropes.
You know a rich set of tropes if you read books, watch TV or see movies. All creative works draw on cultural tropes. Combined, tropes provide a narrative lens through which we observe the world, factual and fictional. New tropes are always being created and others retired.
If you’ve seen some story element used more than once, likely thing is it has a name and a description and is cataloged in the database of TV Tropes. (The “TV” in the names doesn’t really matter, it just started there in 2004 with an analysis of the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
So, why are tropes used so heavily? Entertainment consumers expect them and even crave the juiciest ones. Think of the fleet of romance readers. Genre romance is built on tropes of love, chivalry, and rivalry. Writers use shared tropes to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It reduces the need to do additional explaining. Readers just get it. The love at first sight trope is just one in a vast library of love tropes.
Tropes pack a punch: What a Scrooge! Tropes describe stereotypic characters we encounter all the time. How often does a book or movie use a dumb jock, or jerk jock, especially at a school? There are Superhero and classic princess tropes, as well as tropes for pretty much any other type of typical character.
Tropes cycle with the times. They go stale or they don’t match changing cultural mores and expectations anymore, so authors actively provide alternatives. The damsel in distress is going out of fashion and is often replaced with the more modern concept of strong, ingenious, self-sufficient women, the damsel out of distress.
As much as you can strengthen your story with beloved tropes, you can screw up by getting your recipe wrong. You can mix a bad batch or do a botch job, getting one partially right or oddly half-in/half-out of normal expectations: like a wicked witch who isn’t very wicked. This character will fall flat if you cast her as wicked but never show her doing any act of wickedness. Or she could be realized as a clever anti-trope if you make her kind, against audience expectations, scaring bad kids and rewarding good kids who listen to their parents and try hard at school.
Audiences love it when you dip into expectations as much as when you shake them up. You just have to do it right.
Creative works can live or die by their handling of tropes and you should know the trope selection for your genre. Here are five classic tropes that we will apparently never tire of. Here are 10 tropes for science fiction. Here are world building tropes you may want to avoid.
The more you avoid tropes, the more literary your style of writing is. Indie books defy the rules, leave tropes in the dust and forge new ground. If you chose to live by your creative merits, you’ll have to craft story elements from scratch. This means putting in the time to fully describe and show rather than tell. It’s a harder path but can be extremely rewarding, especially if you craft a new trope – one that sticks in public imagination and keeps getting re-used.
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Jewel words, crux and flavor words, and everything in between
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)
Literal And Figurative Language In Your Writing