Tropes: How to Avoid & Fix Them
Almost every story can be traced back to some core plotline that can be found in other books of that type. Harry Potter is about the chosen one. The Hunger Games is about a rebellion. The Giver is about a dystopian society closed off from the outside world. These can make the book seem boring, identical to countless others. However, the most exciting part of books is not the tropes they explore but how they explore them. Today’s post focuses on common tropes and how to fix them.
What Are Tropes?
Tropes are common plots or characters that can be found in numerous books (or other media) of a genre or age range. They give readers familiarity and give writers a basis to grow the rest of their story off of. They are the foundation of almost every book, movie, and TV show.
Examples of Tropes
Tropes vary between age ranges and genres, but these are some examples of the most common ones. If you want a list of specific tropes in fantasy, I wrote a post on that a while ago.
The love triangle. Will Katniss end up with Peeta or Gale? Will Bella end up with Jacob or Edward?
The orphan. Harry Potter, Oliver Twist. How many YA protagonists can you name with two loving parents that actually play a role in their lives?
Fake dating. Bonus points if they fall in love at the end. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
The chosen one. Prophecies usually play a role here. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson.
The old, wise mentor. Yoda, Merlyn, Dumbledore.
Tropes vs. Clichés
Tropes are common, yet exciting, storylines that have room for fresh takes.
Clichés are overused, entirely predictable storylines that are almost impossible to put a unique spin on. For example, how many characters have stared at their reflection in a mirror and described how different they look? This is a rather common cliché that allows authors to avoid actually showing a character’s traits over the course of the novel. What about dreams that tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the book? Avoid foreshadowing through dreams; there are other ways to build suspense. And evil bad guys that are just that—evil? Give your antagonists other traits!
Every story has tropes (there’s no getting around that), but you should avoid clichés at all costs.
How to Make Tropes Unique
Change the end. What if a character escapes her arranged marriage and stands by her decision to not marry? After all, it would be cliché for her to fall in love with the person she was supposed to marry in the first place. Take a trope we know and love and turn it on its head. Make us feel like we know where we’re going only to reveal the twist at the end.
Don’t make it the entire storyline. If a character is looking for the lost prince, it’s almost certainly going to be the character himself. You can stay true to that trope, but don’t emphasize it. Maybe the character finds out who he is at the very beginning of the story, and the rest of the plot is reliant on that. It doesn’t have to be a big reveal at the end.
Explore the problems with the trope. We’ve seen many rich characters who inherited all their wealth. What if your character doesn’t know how to manage wealth and therefore quickly burns through all their money? Think about the aspects of the trope nobody mentions, the questions that arise when you read books with this trope, and give your readers the answers you want.
Make your characters unique. Nearly every trope is rooted in the involved characters. Readers have read countless love triangles, but they are still exciting because the characters are exciting. If your characters are different, your spin on the trope will automatically be unique.
All in all, tropes are like any other literary element: they are a core part of any story but it is up to you to make it unique. When writing a story, think about the tropes that might be hiding in the corners of what, at first, seems unlike anything you have ever heard of or seen. Make sure you’re doing something different, something unexpected. Don’t try to avoid tropes—that’s impossible. Avoid using them lazily.
What are your favorite and least favorite tropes? Let me know in the comments!