Let’s talk about tropes – those storytelling shorthand cues that give the reader a clue as to what will happen next.
In any kind of creative activity, you end up using shorthand triggers that act like cues to the reader. Used well, these cues can increase tension or help create an air of familiarity around a new story. Used badly, and the trope doesn’t help the story.
What’s in a Trope
Given the sheer number of stories that have ever been told, it is almost guaranteed that whatever story you cook up is going to have elements of familiarity about them. After all, stories are just re-tellings of situations that all make us human, re-assembled in a variety of ways to bring comfort or interest to the reader.
In fact, when you think about it, the reason why you might engage in a piece of writing or TV is because you know what to expect. After all, if you think about a “murder mystery” book vs a “high fantasy” book, you’re going to expect a different story.
This expectation as a reader is what drives a trope – you’re going into the story expecting a type of story to be told to you. If you went in to read what was on the face of it a murder mystery book, and instead found a high fantasy book, you might be disappointed. However, if you went into a book expecting a traditional high fantasy story, which has elements of a murder mystery book, you might be intrigued. After all, your expectations have been subverted.
Tropes play into this- they’re the collection of plot cues, story structures, even character builds which define the genre of story you’re writing.
Tropes can have a bad name – and they shouldn’t
Ever read a story and you feel like its… too tropey? As in you can pick out the elements of the plot as you see them set up, you can see the “Deus Ex Machina” before it lands.
It can get predictable, and suddenly the magic of the story is gone.
However, the tropes themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but it is the way they’re used. For example – in a high fantasy story, its not necessarily a bad thing to have a wiser character give guidance to the main character, ala “Gandalf” fashion. After all, the wiser character explaining certain parts of the worldbuilding to the main character allows the reader to be introduced to the world as well. This can help by reducing the “Learning curve” for the reader as they are introduced to the world. Plus, it can help manage the “info dump” you can sometimes get when introducing new worldbuilding concepts in a fantasy book.
In my opinion, the trick is to understand what the trope is trying to achieve for your story, and to be aware of how many you are using. That way, you can use the tropes as they are intended – as storytelling cues – to help guide the reader through the story.
Playing around with Tropes
You might have heard of the “Checkovs Gun” Trope. If you haven’t, here is the summary from TV Tropes: “The term has come to mean “an insignificant object that later turns out to be important.” For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to the Doomsday Device, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important.”
Now, understanding why the trope is useful is important before you can start playing with it. It stems from showing your reader the key information that will impact the story, making them remember it and question why you’ve shown it to them, so it is satisfying when the proverbial “gun” is then used.
However, it is also just as powerful to subvert the reader’s expectations. This is where you can show the proverbial gun over the bar, but it never goes off. In fact, it’s used as a distraction, or used in a different way than expected – maybe the gun is used but rather than to shoot someone it’s used to hit someone over the head.
TV Tropes has a great page on dissecting the common ways to play around with tropes, check it out!
Tropes define a Genre
What makes a genre other than the tropes that make it up?
When you read a horror story, you’re expecting certain elements that make up that story. When you turn on a detective crime drama, you’re expecting something from the genre when you start the episode.
Any genre that you write in has a level of expectation for that genre. It’s why people read or watch in the same genre – they want to experience a different story within the same boundaries of the last story they enjoyed.
If Tropes define a genre, then using them is no bad thing. In fact, using them helps your reader identify what kind of story they want to read!
Have a go!
When you’re next writing or creating, have a go at playing with some tropes. You never know, they might help your story grow for the better!
Featured Image Credit: Photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash