One of the more illuminating (and entertaining) obstacles in my writing path lately was learning about tropes. I’ve known about tropes in a vague sort of way for a while, but set out to really understand them a few months back.
I love taking expectations and turning them on their heads. I thought after I understood tropes I could play with them in this way. It was kind of a “learn the rules before you break them” sort of exercise.
Little did I know…I was too late. I was already breaking tropes all over the place. Also? You’re really not supposed to break tropes.
I don’t even know if I can call it “breaking” the tropes. I was just plain using them wrong because I didn’t really understand their purpose.
Take the trope of time travel. In Wandering Soul, the heroine, Elsa, travels back in time in the very first chapter and snatches the hero, Dante, from certain death in a fire, bringing him back with her to modern-day Florida.
Even though there’s a time travel element to the story, many of my reader friends told me that I shouldn’t call it a time travel story or really talk about time travel in relation to the book.
“But he’s from the 1800’s,” I said.
“Yes, and they only time travel in the very first chapter and then stay in modern times for the rest of the book,” they replied.
I was still confused. I thought that tropes = story elements.
So I studied them some more—what felt like a bazillionty-million different tropes, picking ones that appealed to me and trying to work them into my stories. It…didn’t work. In fact, I think that’s a big part of why I haven’t been creating like I used to. I was trying to cram a square peg into a chocolate cake.
SPOILER ALERT!!! I’m going to tell you about one of the scenes in what I think will become the first Coalition:Earth novel 🙂 Only read on if you’re okay with that!
The breakthrough finally came when I sat down with my writing bestie, who is also one of the biggest readers I know, and said, “I’m going to use the fake pregnancy trope in my next story!” Knowing me as well as she does, and understanding tropes quite a bit better than I ever will, she was immediately…a bit concerned 🙂
“It’s set in the world of The Department of Homeworld Security,” I said. “See, the heroine is Brendan’s new chef, and she’s a molecular gastronomist. A bunch of bad-guy Sadirians invade their headquarters, and the hero has her fill her backpack with chemicals that might be able to help them escape from the ship later, but she wears it on her front and then puts a baggy T-shirt over it, so she looks like she’s pregnant. Get it?”
My friend very gently said, “Cass… That’s not a fake pregnancy trope.”
After half an hour of intense discussion, I finally understood the fundamental point I had been missing about tropes. Tropes aren’t just descriptors of plot elements. They’re a pervasive part of the entire story—a theme that doesn’t run in the background, but front-and-center for the plot.
That scene is still going to happen (and it’s going to be hilarious), but I’m not going to tell people, “Hey, this is a fake pregnancy story” or even, “this has a fake pregnancy in it.” That isn’t the point of the scene, and it would give them expectations that the rest of the story won’t meet.
And that’s another big thing about tropes. They’re about setting the readers’ expectations.
I know, I know. It seems kind of obvious in retrospect. But I was looking at them only from a craft perspective—as a writer, not a reader.
Naming these themes as different tropes helps readers find their favorite types of stories. As a reader, I find certain tropes compelling enough that I want to read different variations of them over and over again. I just read an amazing amnesia story, Awaken the Darkness, by Dianne Duvall, and absolutely loved it (you’ll definitely get the most out of it if you read the whole Immortal Guardians series in order—they are well worth the read!).
At this point, when I sit down with my stories as a writer, I think it will be easier for me to notice the tropes that rise organically in the stories. And now that I understand tropes a little better, I look forward to playing with them more on the page. I think I’ll enjoy them more when I read them as well.
What are some of your favorite tropes? Amnesia stories, forced proximity, enemies to lovers? Let me know in the comments!