Ah, tropes! You gotta love ‘em. I mean, sure, they're a bit predictable and can feel tired at times, but they’ve managed to stick around for a reason — they often encapsulate great storytelling and readers love seeing them executed well. It’s not for nothing that they’ve managed to become such a central part of popular culture.
The fact that tropes have been done so many times before can sometimes scare authors away from using them — no one wants to be accused of lazy or uninventive writing. But a carefully chosen plot trope applied in the right way can really make your unique writing skills shine.
So, save yourself the worry and trouble — and perhaps even avoid potential writer’s block — by leaning into your favourite tropes.
In this article, I’ll list my top 3 reasons to use more genre plot tropes in your stories.
1. Tropes Help You to Meet Reader Expectations
One of the things most authors discover quite early on, especially if they’re writing any type of “genre fiction”, is that it’s no use trying to avoid tropes entirely. Mainly because they’re so prevalent that it becomes an almost impossible challenge to reinvent the wheel, but also because they usually serve a pretty central purpose.
Take the romance genre, for example.
The friends-to-lovers plot trope is a veritable staple in the genre, and the third-act-crisis followed by an inevitable reconciliation and happy ending are pretty much a requirement at this point. And these tropes work because they help showcase the character dynamics and raise the stakes in an otherwise pretty predictable situation.
Readers enjoy these dynamics and tense situations: they pick up books in that genre expecting to see elements of some of their favourite tropes.
Don’t get me wrong — you can certainly put a new and unique spin on the genre by foregoing all tropes if you want, but it might be an uphill battle convincing your readers that you are indeed writing romance in the first place. The tropes are just so closely connected to the genre that they’ve become an excellent way to signal what type of story you’re writing.
In meeting the reader's expectation for the genre, you also help yourself. Far from lazy, this is about being economical with your effort: by letting readers follow a storyline they're familiar with, you avoid having to invent a whole new one, and instead get to focus on making your characters and setting stand out.
Essentially, tropes leave more space for your personal writing style and language to come through since readers are already onboard with your plot beats.
And in addition to all this, you’ll also make it easier for book publishers to see a market for your novel if it clearly adheres to the conventions of your genre. This not only makes it more likely for your manuscript to be picked up, but it’ll also be easier to get your book in front of the right audience.
2. You Can Twist Them to Keep Readers Engaged
Storytelling is an art as old as time and there are only so many new ways you can go about it. Racking your brain to come up with ways to avoid tropes can be more effort than it’s worth and may even cause some serious writer’s block.
But it is true that authors and readers alike can get pretty fed up with reading the same trope being executed in the same way, over and over again. That’s why you might want to keep readers on their toes by adding a little twist to your trope of choice.
If you don’t want to directly employ tropes into your writing, a different way to approach it is to subvert them slightly. Play with the original idea of the trope, but challenge and change it to fit your novel. You generally don’t have to make huge changes to achieve this — it can be subtle and still be effective.
In fact, sometimes subtle subversion of common tropes can toe the sweet line of meeting reader expectations while still piquing their curiosity with something unfamiliar. When it’s subtle, readers will notice that something is different, but might not be able to put their fingers on what, and so an old trope suddenly feels new, fresh, and interesting.
For instance, if you’re writing in any of the common subgenres of fantasy, you may have come across the noble but reluctant hero, the evil overlord, the travel quest, or the mentor. Likewise, if you’re leaning more towards sci fi publishing, you may be familiar with time and space travel, robots who eerily start to take on human-like qualities, and alien invasions.
A subtle yet powerful way of subverting these tropes is by defying reader expectations just a tiny bit. Like how the evil overlord in Narnia is the White Witch instead of the usual male suspect, shrouded in darkness. Or how the first-contact alien story in Arrival is more about cooperation than the usual hostility. A slight subversion is simple and relatively low effort, yet effective.
Another option is to use your readers’ knowledge of common conventions to your advantage. Start with the setup of a common trope, but then eventually reveal that, in fact, something else has been going on the whole time. Think of what components tip readers off about a trope, what they’ll expect to follow one plot beat after another, and then pick a moment to all of a sudden introduce something else.
Your protagonist may be losing in an epic battle, for instance. Veteran fantasy readers might expect a “here comes the cavalry” moment of LOTR-proportions, but as the author, you can go in a new and unexpected direction. Maybe no one shows up. Or maybe someone does but not who readers thought it would be.
Since readers will recognise the scenario you’re painting as conventions of a familiar trope, this deviation creates an element of surprise, which is not only a great way to produce an effective plot twist, but also a way to make your writing more dynamic — keeping readers engaged.
The important thing to remember when you’re twisting and subverting a trope though is to keep its core somewhat intact. You want readers to still be able to recognise a character as the mentor or the evil overlord, even if you change them slightly. Readers get surprised because they have preconceptions about what’s happening; if you dismantle the trope too much, those preconceptions might never even surface. Any larger theme or comment you were trying to make by utilising this push-and-pull approach with the trope may become too vague or far-stretched for readers to pick up on.
3. You Can Enter a Wider Conversation
Using tropes, as I touched on earlier, is also a way of letting readers and book publishers know where to place your novel in terms of genre and subgenre. It’s a way of joining a community of other writers and positioning your work in context to other works out there. Not only is this good in terms of marketing and sales, but it’s also a great way of connecting with others online or in real life, discussing the use of tropes in your novel over Twitter hashtags or in writing workshops.
Subverting a trope may also force readers to re-evaluate their way of thinking about it, making your novel a commentary on the trope itself. What are the consequences of this new take on a common convention, how does it highlight the way real people act, and what might it tell us about popular culture’s take on the world?
In this sense, tropes can be a great way to communicate your theme and add another layer to your writing, entering a larger conversation with other books and authors in your genre — both those who came before you, and your contemporaries. Simply referencing a popular trope will bring your reader’s mind to other well-known examples of the trope being used — thus adding some intertextuality and filling the space between your lines with implicit meaning. It shows that there are a myriad of ways to interpret the same problem and situation, so that even if the trope is old, the writing feels new.
A good example of this is Emily Henry’s recent release Book Lovers. In a review in NPR, it has been hailed as both a tribute to and a takedown of the common small town romance plot trope that you often see in Hallmark movies and pop culture media. You know, the one where the protagonist rejects her big city lifestyle and returns to a small town where she manages to find love and the meaning of life?
Well, by simultaneously leaning on and subverting this recognisable romance trope, Henry is able to make larger comments on love, family and life — a conversation that not only the romance genre is having, but literature at large. That’s no small feat, and it was made possible by acknowledging and bouncing off common tropes.
Ultimately, the book wouldn’t even exist without tropes!
I hope this article has helped remedy some of the bad reputation tropes tend to get and convinced you to use them more in your own writing. If nothing else, they can be a great source of inspiration, so make sure you balance reading with writing, stay up to date with the latest tropes, and go join the conversation!