Believe it or not, I hear aspiring new writers express the wish to avoid using tropes in their stories on a fairly regular basis. Somehow, tropes appear to be developing a bit of a negative image.
If you aren’t quite sure what a trope is, here’s what Wikipedia says:
The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.
A trope might be:
A narrative device that helps us tell a story
A signpost that helps us identify the genre
A signifier that the author is about to do something
A theme that binds parts of a narrative together
A symbol which helps a character / reader understand something important
From props to settings to supporting characters; fiction is stuffed full of tropes. Broken clocks, full moons, the last bullet, apples and apple trees - it’s human nature to make associations and attach meaning to objects, relationships and actions, which then becomes a trope. Make it iconic enough and that trope will start to hop stories. If it becomes well known enough, other writers will start looking for ways to use and subvert it.
Basically, it’s anything that occurs again and again and is recognisable, allowing us (the reader) to infer meaning or significance. And check this out: tropes are not bad - they are only badly done.
Let’s have a look at a well known trope. It’s an old one, but iconic enough that you’re likely familiar with it. When Star Trek first aired, it had a habit of killing off characters in certain coloured uniforms… If you were wearing a red shirt and you beamed down to an alien planet with a group of main characters, your fate was sealed. You’d be eating a phaser blast / getting eaten / drowning / taking a header off a cliff / becoming infected with a deadly alien parasite - delete as applicable - in fairly short order.
This narrative device doesn’t make us sit back, roll our eyes and complain at how predictable Star Trek is. It’s not boring! As soon as someone we’ve never seen before beams down in a red shirt, we shuffle forward in our seats, rub our hands with glee and start making wagers about what’s going to get him.
The red uniform trope also played an important role in telling the story each episode - it demonstrated the stakes.
Why do we need tropes?
First of all, tropes help us pinpoint what genre and mode we’re in.
Dixon sat at his desk, wearing the same shirt he’d slept in. Bars of light pierced the blinds and fell across a typewriter (gathering dust), an empty whiskey glass and an ashtray full of Lucky Strike butts and regrets. Feet up and hat tipped forward over bloodshot eyes, Dixon waited for his 11am client to walk through the frosted glass door.
Alright, so I laid it on a bit thick. But from one paragraph the reader knows exactly what genre they’re in. The phrases ‘gumshoe’ or ‘private eye’ and maybe ’noir’ are probably bubbling to the surface of their mind. We’ve laid some groundwork for expectation:
That 11am client? Probably going to be a beautiful woman and I bet her husband is missing or dead.
Dixon very likely has money problems and a booze issue.
If there was a revolver in his desk drawer, would you really be shocked?
From one paragraph we’re already starting to make assumptions about what the story is going to be about and probably where / when it’s set.
As you’ve just seen, tropes can help a writer convey a lot of information very easily.
Tropes can help with foreshadowing and understanding a character’s motivations.
Let’s look at the role of aunts in fiction:
Eccentric aunts crop up often. Think Practical Magic, Sloot, Thornyhold, National Velvet, the Sophie books, Poldark. Aunts come in a variety of flavours - we have the loving aunts, the reluctant aunts and the mean aunts. Jane Eyre, James & The Giant Peach, Harry Potter.
Aunts are often associated with orphaned main characters. They are usually pretty colourful characters who speak their mind, are often windowed or spinsters, and they generally have very important information or advice to offer. Aunts tend to be enablers or motivators. We can take this trope back a bit further and associate them with the witches in MacBeth and the Fates in Greek mythology. We are not surprised when something an aunt says turns out to be prophetic in nature.
Tropes also help the writer build suspense and anticipation.
It goes without saying but this is particularly important in genres which require suspense, such as thrillers, horror and mysteries.
Let’s look at Aliens (the second one, and yes, you should read the novelisation). We know long before we ever see a Xenomorph that at least 90% of the ground crew are doomed. In fact, a seasoned consumer of the genre could probably pick out which ones are going to make it.
That doesn’t ruin the story, because the story is all about suspense. Every time one of those expendable characters goes to the toilet, sneaks away for a cheeky smoke, makes a crucial solo supply run or says something unbelievably stupid like “Ok, I think they’ve gone!”, our blood pressure rockets, our palms get sweaty and before we know it we’re reading with one eye screwed shut and having to psych ourselves up to turn the page.
Finally, tropes help us manipulate and play with the expectations of our readers.
Let’s assume that the adage 'there are no original stories' is true. What you can do is tell a story in an original way. This tends to be achieved through subversion. This is not the practice of completely removing tropes from your narrative; subversion is when you take a trope, motif or a genre convention and you handle it in an unexpected way.
Here’s an example:
In 1966 Star Trek started killing extras dressed in red shirts on away missions; the team member would die and then everyone else would move on with the plot.
In the next iteration of Star Trek (TGN), it was the turn of the yellow shirts - although obviously they were wearing red underwear. In 1989 Star Trek broke the mould by giving that dead crew member a name (Marla Aster) and devoting the entire episode to the guilt-ridden away team leader trying to help Aster’s small son cope with his grief. To this day, The Bonding is viewed as a major turning point in the franchise.
Much later, the Austin Powers franchise would draw our attention to this trope again, by showing us a clip of a henchman’s family being notified of his death. The scene ends with the widow saying, “People never think how things affect the family of a henchman.”
Feelings of inevitability, triumph when you correctly guessed the murderer and shock when you get hit with a twist you never saw coming all contribute to our pleasure of reading.
The role of the author, whether you are playing a trope straight, subverting a trope or deliberately using a trope in such a ruthlessly predictable way that it becomes engaging, is to write it well.
Tropes only become boring and unexciting when the author hasn’t done a good enough job of presenting them. A trope should never be used to fill the gaps in lazy writing. A reader who loves stories will not thank you for the careless handling of a beloved narrative device.
So don’t decide to arbitrarily hate tropes by default. We read because we love stories and tropes are an integral part of that experience.
If you’d like to learn more about tropes, take a look at these:
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Scream - 1996, directed by Wes Craven
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaimen
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Cover image: Thomas Anderson from Pixabay