Several months ago, I saw a fascinating Storify by Carina Press editor Angela James. I meant to do a post about the issue she brought up, but I often have more blog post ideas than time. With my recent articles about subtext, genre stories, formulaic writing, and my guest post at Paranormal Unbound about tropes in paranormal romance, now seems like a good time to revisit the idea.
Tropes—common themes or story devices—are often derided by people for being cliché or predictable. Many see them as lazy storytelling. I don’t disagree. Tropes can be all of those things.
However, tropes can also be shockingly true-to-life. In real life, if the light bulb burns out in the basement, we go down there to fix it, regardless of how many horror movies we seen. In real life, we might do mean things to get back at someone. In real life, we might even *gasp* fall in love at first sight.
Tropes Can Be Realistic? No Way!
“Love at first sight” is an example of a trope in romance novels. Romance novel fans are familiar enough with the common tropes to claim favorites (“I can’t resist an enemies-to-lovers story.”) and ones they avoid (“I can’t stand secret-baby stories.”).
Those tropes are often pointed to as reasons why romance novels are fantasy to be dismissed. But as I said above, tropes—even those in romance novels—are often more realistic than we assume.
Proving that point, Carina editor Angela James asked her Twitter followers what their real-life relationship trope was. She shared that her marriage is a “friends-to-lovers, accidental pregnancy leads to marriage (older “heroine” at 29 who should know better)” real-life trope.
The Storify she created with her followers’ answers is sweet and funny. Some of my favorite responses included:
I have a pal who met his wife via text. His 1st msg to her was intended for another, and off by a digit.
— Brian Shane (@bwshane) Original Tweet
Met on I-95. Him in car next me, made eyes at each other. Held up cell phone number to window. 15 yrs and 3 kids later…
— Jennifer Malone (@jenmalonewrites) Original Tweet
I wrote XFiles fanfiction, got a fan letter via email. Now together for 20, married for 13 years! Best fan letter EVAH! 😉
— Sheryl Nantus (@SherylNantus) Original Tweet
I had a crush on my 11th grade substitute math teacher. We started dating when he was no longer teaching. Married 18 years.
— Sharon Muha (@s_muha) Original Tweet
Taken as a whole, the Storify is enlightening about how many tropes are common in real life, especially as most responses hit more than one trope (like the examples above, almost all of the responses were for current marriages):
- High school/college sweethearts: 18 responses
- Friends-to-lovers: 14 responses
- Insta-love: 11 responses
- Online romance: 10 responses
- No-strings/one-night-stand: 9 responses
- Blind date/set up: 9 responses
- Reunion romance: 7 responses
- Dating the boss/teacher: 6 responses
- Enemies-to-lovers: 6 responses
- Office romance: 4 responses
- Brother’s best friend/best friend’s older brother: 4 responses
- Bad-boy/tragic hero: 4 responses
- Military hero: 4 responses
- Secret crush: 4 responses
- Rebound/second choice: 4 responses
- Reluctant dating: 3 responses
- Big age difference: 3 responses
- Met at a wedding: 3 responses
- Accidental pregnancy: 3 responses
- Virgin hero: 1 response
- Met at band camp: 1 response
- Mistaken identity: 1 response
- Marriage of convenience: 1 response
- Stole someone’s boyfriend: 1 response
Some of the tropes often dismissed as the most unrealistic or cliché (insta-love, one-night-stand leads to marriage, dating the boss, enemies-to-lovers, “taming” the bad boy) are, in fact, surprisingly common. And even some of the most roll-our-eyes tropes (accidental pregnancy, mistaken identity, marriage of convenience) happened to someone Angela knew. If we asked our friends, we’d probably find similar stories.
How Tropes Can Benefit Our Stories
There’s a saying about stereotypes: Stereotypes became stereotypes because there’s an element of truth to them. Not all stereotypes fit that saying, but some do. I’d put tropes into a similar category.
We see common tropes in stories because we relate to many of them. We relate to them because we’ve lived through them, either directly or through friends. In other words, they can be realistic.
Which is the worse “crime” in storytelling? Is it bad if we include a trope that readers can relate to—even though some call it cliché? Or should we avoid including a single trope in our stories—even if that makes our stories less relatable (and less realistic)?
If our goal is to create a story that sucks readers in and doesn’t let them go, the sweet spot might be somewhere in the middle. We need unique stories that rise above formula and dig beyond the predictable, but we also need a touch of normality to give our readers an anchor into our story’s world. Tropes can provide a common ground from which readers will be more comfortable exploring the new and different.
If we try to eliminate all tropes, in addition to making it harder for readers to relate to the story or characters, we might even do our stories a disservice. We might accidentally create a character without flaws (“Oh, we can’t write that—it’s too cliché.”). Or we might write a too-convoluted story or over-the-top characters in our attempt to avoid the normal (i.e., clichéd) plot flow and character reactions.
Maybe our goal should instead be to include only story tropes that help the reader relate to the story. Story tropes that make the characters and/or story more relatable to the reader are a good thing. Their subtext taps into our subconscious and allows us to experience the story on a deeper level.
We see the characters and we see ourselves.
We see the story and we see our life.
So long as our story is unique in other ways, story tropes—used well—can provide a connection to the reader difficult to achieve by other means. That’s not lazy writing; that’s good storytelling. *smile*
Should we always avoid story tropes? Or do you think they can sometimes be a good thing? In what ways could they be helpful? Do you have a favorite or least favorite story trope? Could an aspect of your life be described with a real-life trope (romance or other type)?
Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)