Tropes: Helpful Tools or Damaging Cliches?
A city slicker.
A character dropping or spilling her favorite food.
A villain’s dramatic speech.
A drafty old mansion on the top of a hill.
What do all of these have in common?
They’re all tropes. Tropes are common story elements recognizable to audiences across platforms and defining genres. You’ve seen them on TV and in movies, and you’ve read them in books. You could probably add a few more to the list above without much effort.
Some people love tropes. Knowing how to use a good trope can get a quick laugh or win sympathy, and it demonstrates knowledge and comfort with the genre in question.
Other people stay far away. Tropes are heavily associated with cliches and can appear tired and predictable, indicating lazy writing and a lack of creativity.
So which are they, and is it possible to use tropes as tools without surrendering yourself to the tedium of a story-in-a-box formula?
The Uses of Tropes
Ultimately, tropes act as tiny bridges that connect your imagination with that of your readers. It’s hard to slog through a novel if every image, circumstance, and character is alien and impossible to make any judgments about. Readers feel more comfortable if they can pick out the heroes and villains, tell when a situation is dangerous or relaxing, and picture the scene playing out more readily in their minds.
Tropes can also fill in voids in your story that would have been left vacant if you wanted to do everything yourself. World-building is a lot of work, especially when it comes to more imaginative genres like fantasy and science fiction. If you don’t watch it, you’ll get so caught up fleshing out the customs of valley orcs that readers aren’t actually sure what their camps look like under a blistering summer sun. If you sprinkle a trope here or there, your stories will appear better grounded and more thorough.
Lastly, the appropriate use of tropes can help you manage pacing and build tension. As a rule, writing that avoids tropes is slower paced. Readers have a harder time sinking into it and take longer to read it as they constantly have to interpret every image on the page.
How many tropes are too many tropes?
A trope can encompass your entire novel, or it can take up a single phrase in a conversation between minor characters. Tropes are hard to quantify, but sometimes it can feel like a story has a few too many. How many tropes do you actually need?
As with any other writing guideline, the right number of tropes varies from writer to writer.
Some people construct their books entirely based on tropes and fill them with as many as possible. This results in a fast-paced and fun read, but with it comes the risk of a book growing cliché and forgettable.
Others reserve tropes for the background, using them to color in details that would otherwise have been left out from the story entirely and pick up the pacing when needed.
It’s a good idea to experiment with this and see what works best for your fiction. You might find that tropes make it easier to break into the more difficult sections of your book or speed up areas that feel too slow.
What are your thoughts about tropes? As always, you can sign up to leave a comment on the comments section, or—for more discussion—you can click the blue button below to join my Facebook group for self-publishing fiction writers.