July 25, 2019

Story Tropes: Making Them Resonate

Newborn hand touching adult finger with text: Are Tropes Cliché or Meaningful?

I’ll tell you about my vacation adventures next week, but today, I’m keeping my post short—both because I’m exhausted and because I slept so soundly after all my poor sleep during the trip that I pinched a nerve and can barely move my arm, making typing difficult. *shakes head*

Luckily, I returned to hear cute news that gave me an idea of what topic I could revisit and update today. Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late Steve Irwin, got engaged yesterday. *grin*

Usually, I’m not one to follow celebrity news, but like many around the world, I felt like I “knew” the Irwin family, so I’ve hoped she’d be okay as she grew up without her father. As a result, I’ve vaguely paid attention to news stories about her.

Not only does she appear to be better than okay with her engagement news, but I’m tickled by the real-life tropes check-marked in their relationship.

This Twitter image sums them up:

Bindi and Chandler had a meet cute 6 years ago while she was giving a tour at the zoo—the same way her parents met:

Steve & Terri: Love at First Sight

In other words, not only did their meet cute check the same “insta-love” and “office (zoo tour) romance” boxes as her parents, but it resonated with those who have followed the Irwin family’s story.

Tropes are often seen as lazy writing, but as I’ve written about before, they can be good for our story. Let’s take a look…

“Bad” Tropes: When They’re a Storytelling Shortcut

  • If we hear about a YA book centered on the high school experience, we’ll likely assume the story will be about popular kids, bullying, standing up for yourself, etc.
  • With sports movies (and many “team”-focused movies in general), we wouldn’t be surprised if the story is about an underdog team of misfits who learn to value teamwork and themselves and go on to win the championship.

That’s partly what makes a trope a trope. Audiences can fill in the details of a trope without the story having to spell everything out.

But that shortcut aspect is what gives tropes a bad name. The lazy examples of those stories rely so much on trope formulas to carry the storytelling or worldbuilding details that the story itself fails to show rather than tell.

What makes a trope “good” or “bad”? Click To TweetIn a lazy story with the high school trope, the audience would be told that the bullying would magically end because the final taking-a-stand triumphant speech was oh-so-inspirational, but they would have no reason other than the trope to believe that the case.

In other words, tropes are bad when we as storytellers rely on them to carry the work of the story. Just because everyone knows how the enemies-to-lovers trope in a romance story ends (hint: with the characters getting together in a relationship), that doesn’t mean the storyteller can skip out on doing the work to make the audience believe the characters have actually overcome their incompatible goals and found common ground.

“Good” Tropes: Audiences Like Them

Yet for all those problems, story tropes aren’t “bad” in and of themselves. For many people, the tropes are why they like a story.

Story tropes help readers know what kind of story we’re going to tell, what they can expect on our pages. Tropes fulfill that function in the same way that book covers often conform to genre clichés so readers know what to expect from the story inside.

Story tropes also help readers relate to our stories. They often feel like something we’ve seen or experienced before, so they feel realistic or the resonate with the subtext we’ve seen in other iterations.

“Good” Tropes: Find the Resonances

In other words, “bad” tropes are shortcuts that cut corners on developing the characters or story world or plot. “Good” tropes add to the story and characters, resulting in more than the sum of their parts.

They find resonances in the real world, in our reader expectations, in the genre (or series) history, in the subtext, etc. For example, the Bindi engagement resonates with her parents’ history, with our wishes for a happy life for the little girl we’ve watched grow up, and with the subtext of the “insta-love” trope that soulmates exist and true love is possible.

How can we make tropes meaningful and not cliche? Click To TweetOur story’s tropes will be more meaningful if we build echoes and resonances with them. We can play with the layers that make our take on the trope unique, having them interact with other aspects of our story. We can use setup and payoff cycles, contrast with reader expectations, etc.

When elements of our stories resonate, they feel like they have a purpose. So when tropes resonate, they avoid the problems of clichés. Purposeful, meaningful tropes aren’t lazy shortcuts but ways to get readers involved in our stories. *smile*

What do you think makes a trope good or bad? Have you considered how tropes can resonate with meaning before? Can you think of other story elements that add meaning to our story? What other aspects of our story improve with echoes? Am I alone with my “aww” reaction to Bindi? *grin*

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Comments — What do you think?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thank you. I hope your vacation stress was not too tough on you.
Personally, I’m finding my college vacation to be almost as busy as the college year. I don’t think that’s a trope!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Oh, your website lifted my image from Google; I only just uploaded it as a label to my gmail account a couple of days ago. These things are getting all interconnected. And far too smart.
If you need a photo image credit, that was taken by Kenny Leigh my photography lecturer.

Deborah Makarios

What’s a “meet cute”?

Jill Sardella
Jill Sardella

It’s the scene in which the couple first meets, either in a cute, humorous, or interesting way.

Jill Sardella
Jill Sardella

I love tropes when they are done right. I buy books that have my favorite tropes and avoid books containing the tropes I don’t like. Themes are another good story element that add meaning. I’m very happy for Bindi. I haven’t followed her closely, but have caught bits and pieces of her growing up over the years. She seems a bit young to be getting married. Hopefully it lasts.


I am having a yes and no experience with familiar tropes reading Ayesha at Last. it has received rave reviews as a “modern Pride and Prejudice.” It’s actually a pretty straight forward use of Romance Novel tropes set among modern Muslims living in Canada. It’s easy to recognize the tropes and quite of number of stereotypes of people who are prejudiced or just plain ignorant or both with respect to Islamic culture. I cannot say I am not enjoying the book. But I was expecting more. I’m only at the meeting and being turned off stage, so perhaps the use of the tropes will become a bit more creative. An easy read, but not on the P&P level. Maybe it wasn’t written to be and the hype did the author a disservice.


Bindi is 21? When did that happen? I must be getting old …

I’ve recently blogged about tropes, introducing some of the popular romance tropes. As a reader, I certainly have tropes I love (friends to lovers, enemies to lovers) and tropes I loathe (love triangle – I’ve read some good ones, but I almost always end up favouring the guy who lost out).

I suspect what I often loathe about the love triangle is that too many authors have plotted the story and decided who will “win”, then rely on the trope to do the work. They don’t do a good enough job of developing their characters to SHOW why that character gets the girl (or the guy).


I have now finished Ayesha At Last; This lovely modern Muslim romance novel is a masterful use of tropes; I was particularly impressed because her characters, like mine, are not permitted to touch each other and fantasies must be less than steamy to appeal to readers who observe traditional restrictions on sexuality before marriage. This could be a handbook on how to make this work. I regret that the author and the publicists found it necessary to compare it to Pride and Prejudice to which it bears little resemblance, other than being a classic romance novel. My copy was from the library, but I’ll be buying a copy to annotate as an aid while I work on my own Jewish Regency Romance.

Click to grab Stone-Cold Heart now!