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August 22, 2013

Story Tropes: Should We Avoid Them?

Field of tulips in Holland with text: Are Story Tropes Always Cliches--and Bad?

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

I was a brazen hussy and stole my hubby from my college roommate’s bff. 25 years and 2 kids later #IRLromance
— Deb Moran (@debkm) 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.)

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41 Comments on "Story Tropes: Should We Avoid Them?"

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Carradee
A Fistful of Fire has been called by one reviewer “the most different fantasy story I’ve ever read”. Folks often call it odd. It’s currently getting a few hundred reads a day on Wattpad. But I originally came up with A Fistful of Fire by looking at a tropes list. It was perhaps a decade ago, and I’ve long since lost the link—actually, I believe the site was taken down—but I found a list of clichés in fantasy and decided to see how many I could pull together and tweak or thumb my nose at. Part elf MC? Check—but she’s a klutz. MC’s actually of royal birth and heir to a prophecy? Check—but she and everybody that matters already knows it. Distrust of royalty? Check—in a way that ended up particularly twisted due to the entire she is royalty thing. Prince falls for the FMC though her station means he shouldn’t? Check—and actually, things line up so they have to marry. Magical godmother? Check—but she’s insanely protective to the point of homicide and is quite…odd in what she’ll choose to interfere with. And I could keep going. Even the POV—first person, present tense—was originally selected due to the fantasy standard being third person, past tense. But I took those things and figured out a story wherein those things all fit. If something didn’t fit, I tossed it or figured out how to change the trope so it could. The geology and climate have more in common with Kentucky than with… Read more »
Carradee

*sighs* Sorry for forgetting transitions—again—but the short version is that yes, I do think story tropes can be used well, though if you use them—and how you use them—should be affected by your target audience.

The romance trope of attraction despite unequal power balance intrigues me, for some reason. Not sure why. I tend to hate love triangles, though I think that has more to do with them usually feeling more forced on the story than organic to the story, because I actually enjoy them when the relationships feel natural.

As for something in my life that comes from a trope… I don’t know.

Krysta

I highly doubt that there is a way to avoid tropes when writing a story. A trope subverted could still be a trope. I find the most interesting stories I read are the ones that take a trope and adds a new element of originality to it.

For romantic plots/subplots, I like love-triangles (aka something like Team Bob vs. Team Joe), but it is hard to find good stories since there are so many novels about it. (Particularly with the emergence of Twilight, and other similar novels that followed Twilight.) So when that particular trope was well-written, it makes the story more precious to me.

Sondrae Bennett

Really great article. I found the text responses fascinating. While writing, I don’t think anyone should be discouraged to use a trope if that’s what the story needs, or feel like they have to. If the writer stays true to the story, they’ll have a great book in the end.

Kim Barton

What about the Hero’s Journey as a trope? I see it everywhere, and it works most of the time, even after thousands of years!

We don’t criticize musicians for using the same structure for songs, or playing the same chords, or writing about the same topics. They understand that there are only so many ways to create a rock or country or electronica song. People expect a certain amount of familiarity.

Couldn’t experimental literature also be considered a trope? What happens when an author deliberately plays with language or the structure of a novel? I think that is cliche.

I don’t see how you can get around using a trope, especially if you are writing in a specific genre, like romance. How many different ways are there to meet someone and fall in love? My own life story would be considered cliche.

If you can add some extra twists or something different, that helps to make it go down easier. I think if you have a well constructed story and likable and believable characters, then it doesn’t matter if the base is a trope.

The original Star Wars movies followed the Hero’s Journey so perfectly it was like Lucas was following a script. But he added the space stuff and the bit about the Force, and that made for a wonderful and very well-loved story! (I’m talking only about the original trilogy, not the prequels).

Marcy Kennedy

Yet another excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. Tropes aren’t always bad. Whether they’re good or bad comes from how we use them.

And most of my friends could fit into one trope or another with their romances. My husband and I were an online romance. One friend married her high school music teacher (who was 17 years older). Another friend hated her husband when they first met, but they always ended up stuck next to each other at events. And the list could go on 🙂

Amanda

As romance writers, we kind of have to use tropes. That’s the bread and butter of the genre! My personal favorite is friends to lovers – there’s so much potential drama and angst in there, thus no reason to resort to the dreaded love triangle! (Did I mention I hate love triangles? I LOATHE them. LOATHE, I tell you.)

I think tropes have become so ingrained in fiction in general that you can’t avoid them. You can dress them up, strip them naked, flip them inside out and upside down, but when you get down to brass tacks, it’s still a trope. I think the trick these days is to take a trope and find a way to make it SEEM like you’ve never come across it before. I’ve been playing around with the marriage of convenience trope in two recent stories and so far it’s been a lot of fun. My hope is my take on it is something an editor hasn’t seen before…and that the readers will agree!

And I think you find tropes (or common themes, if you don’t want to call it a trope) in all types of fiction. Mysteries/thrillers have their tropes, sci-fi/fantasy certainly do, and yes, even literary fiction has certain themes. It’s kind of like Hollywood: all the stories have been told before. Now we just have to find new ways to tell the same story.

So, yeah, there ain’t no getting away from them!

Addy Rae
Addy Rae

Tropes can be done really well or really sloppily, but when they’re done well it’s so easy to relate to the characters!

I hadn’t realized there were so many specific tropes for Romance. (I don’t read it heavily, mostly because I feel guilty when I have such an awesome guy to be reading about other guys.) I’m poking at my current WIPs to see what tropes I can find in them. 🙂

Laura Pauling

There are certain tropes that suck me in all the time. And if it’s written well, then I’ll read it every time! 🙂 Usually, life is stranger than fiction, even unbelievable at times and full of coincidence but somehow there can be no such thing in fiction. 🙂

Anne R. Allen

Lots of wisdom here, Jami. There’s a reason we like the old stories. After all, Homer and Virgil both told pretty much the same story about some guy bopping around the Mediterranean after the Trojan War. But somehow those stories still have legs… There’s a reason things become cliches. Because real life is full of them.

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[…] Gold: Story Tropes: Should We Avoid Them? Excerpt: “Tropes—common themes or story devices—are often derided by people for being […]

Taurean Watkins
I have mixed feelings on this, particularly because my beta-readers highly despise various tropes and cliches, especially where girls/women are concerned, even if I TRIED to be clever with them…But that’s another topic. Personally, I am tired of the “Psycho Perv” trope, cliche, whatever you call it. We’re never going to make any headway on a more balanced view of mental illness if this is the SOLE defining persona in fiction or nonfiction, we NEED new blood and voices on this topic, especially in fiction. If I were a braver writer and could write YA, I’d write the book myself, and this is a book I’d self-publish if I had to, just to get a different side of the story out there, it would not be about the money for me. At least with some nonfiction, we’re starting to see that not all people with mental illness are killers and psycho pervs, but people who just want what most people want, a decent, whole life. We have the same dreams, fears, and needs as anyone else, but we lack in areas, but it doesn’t make us less human, IMHO. Is it not possible to have a mentally ill character who has a moral compass, still flawed and makes mistakes, but aren’t serial killers or rapists? Like gender stereotyping, this imbalanced view of mentally ill characters in fiction especially is really worrying to me, I just want to see more variety. Not every person with a mental illness is like what’s… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
I love those exact post counts you put up there for the various tropes. 😀 Now that’s concrete evidence for those people who think that cliches are unrealistic. Hmm, I used to like evading as many cliches as possible, but later I thought that that was too forced, and that real life was full of cliches anyway, so there was no point in torturing yourself over it. (As you’ve said, deliberately trying something non-cliche may make it unnecessarily complex instead.) So now, rather than intentionally avoiding cliches, I 1) think about what my characters do, rather than what I want to make them do, i.e. let the characters’ relationships develop in whichever way they want (I have no control over their stories); and 2) Instead of trying to dodge all cliches, I find it helpful to rejoice when you use a cliche that you personally like. For instance, the “similar interests attract” trope is a favorite of mine, and thus I was happy when one of my male main characters, who is a physics geek, falls in love with a girl who is as into physics as he is! (This also underscores a personal belief–I think the best couples share at least one big similar interest or even passion.) Now I’m really not bothered anymore if my story slips into a cliche, as long as it’s a cliche that I like, and doesn’t sound dumb, boring, or what’s worst—phony or out-of-character. I think I’ve talked to you about this before,… Read more »
Taurean Watkins

Serena,

I can get where you’re coming from.

But at least for me, just because I do what my characters want, doesn’t mean it’s engaging for the reader, and while you are spared this concern since you don’t write for the reasons I do, I HAVE to face the discrepancy that will occur between what my characters want to do and what potential readers will believe.

Trust me, those two things aren’t always instantly harmonious, to put it as positively as I can without lying.

In one of my novels in progress someone’s helping me work through, your style of drafting has not served me well, but I respect the merit behind it, it’s just that there’s more to it for me.

That said, sometimes forcing oneself to forge ahead is the difference between drafting and not drafting for that day.

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[…] we might laugh at the trope, as we discussed a few weeks ago, many story tropes are actually quite common in real life. In Angela James’s Twitter poll of her followers’ real-life relationship […]

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[…] second article I found regarding tropes that made me rethink how relate to them was this: “Story Tropes: Should We Avoid Them?” by author Jami Gold. Tropes are actually more common than we […]

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