Let's Talk About Tropes and Using Them in Your Writing

Monday, December 16, 2019
I've been a published author since 2012 and have been a reader all my life. I have an amazing critique group who stays up-to-date with trends in books and reads a ton. And yet, when we were at the writing conference 20Books to 50K, we were introduced to the importance of tropes. At one point in the past month, I said, "Tropes! Where have you been all my life?" Heck--I was even an English major.

Maybe you read a lot about writing or have been to a workshop on tropes. But if you're like me and the other members of the Lit Ladies, then these are elements of your fiction that you have probably been including already, but you didn't realize how much readers expected them and how you can use them to help you sell more books.

What is a Trope?
A trope is a common storyline for a genre, such as romance or urban fantasy, that readers expect when they pick up a book in your genre. It does not mean it's a formula or a boring read! It's a story that is similar to others in the genre, like a contract with the reader. Readers expect certain things to happen in this book based on the trope. If you don't deliver, they will not be happy with you!

Here are a couple of examples:

When Harry Met Sally: In this popular movie, Harry and Sally are friends who eventually turn into lovers. That's a trope. It happens in a lot of romance books and movies--even in my first young adult romance, Caught Between Two Curses! When I wrote it and received a contract for it, I didn't even realize I was writing a romance. (Oh, I wish I could go back and talk to that Margo!) I certainly didn't realize that I had a popular trope in there--friends to lovers (although my two teen characters are simply boyfriend and girlfriend by the end). But my book and When Harry Met Sally are nothing alike except for that trope. Some readers and movie watchers only want to read books about friends becoming lovers--and so they will specifically search for all the different stories to find the ways that this trope comes to life.

There are over a hundred romance tropes--it's unbelievable! Here are a few more common ones that you're probably familiar with: enemies become lovers, first love, second chance at love, secret romance, and a love triangle. Knowing your trope can help you read other books with a similar trope (market research) and write marketing materials that catch the attention of readers who are searching for that type of book!

Harry Potter: In this fantasy book, Harry is the chosen one, which is a very popular trope in this genre. Harry is the only one who can defeat Voldemort. Frodo from Lord of the Rings is another protagonist who is the chosen one. Neither Harry nor Frodo have a choice to go on their journeys--they have to go on it. If they don't do it, the evil will not be defeated. But look at the difference between these two fantasies--they have the same trope, but they are extremely different.

Some other common fantasy tropes are the secret heir, the reluctant hero, the lucky novice, and the quest.

So how do you make your trope fresh?
This is a question that successful authors answer time and again--and the answer is really simple. You tell your story in the best possible way you can--with your voice, your research, your unique characters, your humor, and so on. If you know that the chosen one is a common trope, and some very famous authors have done it well, then how can you still use the chosen one in your fantasy but put your own spin on it?

Practice picking out tropes while you're reading--they won't only be in genre fiction. But look at the storylines of the books you enjoy and see if you can notice a common one that you have seen in several other movies or books. You can also do Internet searches like "young adult romance tropes" or "space opera tropes" and read some of the articles that pop up.

As always, write the story that is in your heart. However, if you want to sell it, then also figure out where it fits in the marketplace and part of this is also discovering the tropes you cover in the story.

Margo L. Dill is a children's and YA author who also teaches online courses for WOW! In January, she is offering two courses for novel writers. On January 3, "Writing a Novel With a Writing Coach" begins. Then her brand new class, "Writing Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction: A Study and Workshop" starts on January 21. For more information, click the links or contact Margo at margo (at) wow-womenonwriting.com .


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hmm. Now you've got me thinking. What are the tropes in the fantasy novel I'm listening to on audio? Impossible task tackled by a team ala Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What are the tropes in the cozy I'm writing? Amateur detective. Second chance? Maybe that too. Something to noodle over while I make cookie dough.

Margo Dill said...

Yes, once you start thinking this way, it's interesing to try to figure out. AND then to think of a book that maybe you didn't connect with that well and wonder if it was something about the trope!

Momomma said...

Very interesting!

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

Have I gotta the effervesince for youse...

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