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Writing Tropes | What are they and how to use them?



Old books on a shelf with one leaning on the rest.

First, let us say that tropes are not a bad thing in writing. Every book has them to varying degrees, and it really boils down to how you use them in your story. If you understand the expectations around these tropes, you will also know how you can go about breaking them and subverting those reader expectations, or simply surprising them with a twist on the idea.


In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common tropes you will find in writing and that you will probably recognize in your own. DO NOT PANIC if you notice you have one or more of them. Remember, it boils down to how they are used in the book.


Two Ways Writing Tropes Are Helpful to Writers

1. They help offer readers things that are familiar. 

Tropes are popular for a reason—if something has been written about over and over again, there’s a good chance that it’s something readers enjoy reading! For example, popular romance tropes are a great place to start when coming up with your love story idea, because they’re guaranteed to be familiar territory to those readers.

2. They give you a jumping-off-place to innovate. 

Tropes can be helpful, but a novel made up only of tropes will quickly start to feel stale and predictable to readers. That’s why you need to read up on tropes—and then innovate. Deliberately taking a favorite trope and turning it on its head is a great way to put your own unique spin on the genre and keep your readers interested.


Love Triangle

One of the most common tropes of romance literature: three characters are competing for each other’s love, but only two will pair off. This is a favorite romance trope for creating tension since the reader wonders who will pair off and who will be left alone with their painfully unrequited love. Will she choose the bad boy or the geek? Will he choose the cheerleader or the ugly duckling? Love triangles are the ultimate trope to appeal to “shippers”—readers who like to pick a side and play matchmaker.


Now, one way to do it well is rather than presenting just two guys, the author presents two choices that each guy represents. For instance, one guy represents turbulent passion: a choice for the main character to reject her higher socioeconomic status, sabotaging her family's hope of a better future for the sake of true love. Another guy represents responsible stability: a choice for the main character to lean into her status for the "greater good" of her family, staying in a relationship that may not be as passionate but one that is secure.


The Evil One

This is your Sauron from The Lord of the Rings or Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. They are pure evil, have no redeeming qualities at all, and want nothing more than absolute power. These villains tend to be very one dimensional and uninteresting for the readers. If you are going to use it, make sure to give them an interesting backstory to help the readers at least understand why they are evil.


Chosen One

We all know how this one goes. A farmer's child who has no idea how to fight, deal in politics, or anything else outside of cabbages is suddenly thrust into the story and in over their heads. By the end of it, they wear the crown, usually by consensus of the people, and now they rule fairly and with justice. Everyone loves when these stories are done well because, for the reader, they can imagine themselves being the one to wear the crown. The key to making this trope land is having a solid reason for WHY that character takes the crown.


It can also be an average person who is “chosen” either by a sage or prophecy. They usually will not know about it until all heck breaks loose and then they are thrust onto center stage of the conflict. This trope tends to be coupled with the “save the world” trope (listed below). As you might imagine, this trope gets old pretty quick when it follows the same general layout, but there are ways to put a spin on it, such as instead of saving the world, the chosen one is meant to destroy it; or perhaps the chosen one is the one who finds the person meant to save to the world or some other variation. Play around with it a little.


Ugly turned beauty queen

Basically, this trope is a retelling of The Ugly Duckling and it typically revolves around a girl who is plain becoming a princess (such as Cinderella). Now, that’s not the only way it can be done, but it seems to be the most common. Magic tends to be how it comes about, either by some potion, curse, or a fairy-godmother. The flip side of this trope is turning the Beauty into the Ugly (For instance, Shrek does this with Princess Fiona via a curse).


Gail Carson Levine does this beautifully in her book Fairest where the main character is conventionally "ugly" and the antagonist is conventionally "beautiful," but they switch labels not because of their appearance but because of their inner character. The antagonist ends up being "uglier" because of her awful personality, while the main character ends up being more "beautiful" in everyone's eyes because she's good and gallant.


If you’re going to do it, make sure you figure out the “why” you are going with this trope so you can remain consistent throughout the story.


Save the world

Saving the world from destruction is probably THE most common trope in writing. From fantasy to science fiction, you will find tons of books where a ragtag group of heroes or the Chosen One has to save the world (be it Earth or somewhere else). The best about this trope is it creates high stakes for the protagonists right away, and if they fail, the world ends. Drama, tension, and climatic endings are what make this trope a fan favorite.

A drawback newer writers can run into with this trope is they spend so much time making it clear that the world is ending that they forget the characters. What are they fighting for? What do they have to lose? What meaningful, smaller pieces push the character(s) to fight for something bigger?


A good example would be Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, and we’ll use the movie version of Frodo since more people have seen that. In the movie, Gandalf returns to Hobbiton and walks Frodo through the history of the Ring. Frodo jumps up and gives a couple of options of what they could do, to which Gandalf bursts his bubble.


“But it cannot stay here!” Frodo exclaims.


“No. No it can’t,” Gandalf replies.


Then comes the moment that will change Frodo’s life. He closes the ring in his hand and looks up at Gandalf. “What must I do?”


Gandalf just laid out that the lands would be covered in a Second Darkness if Sauron were to get the Ring back (i.e. the world would end). Seems pretty brave, but it’s at the end of the third movie when they are standing in the Grey Havens, Frodo voices his why: “The Shire has been saved. But not for me.”


Everything Frodo did was for the love of the Shire. Sure, the world was under threat, but what did Frodo care most about? The Shire. So, if you’re writing something where the world is under threat, make sure the character has a small, more personal reason for trying to save it.


Back to my small town

About 99% of Hallmarks movies contain this trope. Typically, an uptown girl is burnt out from the hustle and bustle and needs a change of pace, or, like in the movie Sweet Home Alabama, she gets called back to her small hometown for something specific. Most romance novels tend to use this as the backdrop for the story, and it almost always involves Love Triangles, childhood friends, friends to lovers, etc. The biggest thing you can do to keep readers guessing who the “friends to lovers” will be is make the two choices viable and worth it. More often than not, it’s painfully obvious who the main character should pick (creating angst), but by creating two solid options, you put just enough of a twist on the trope to change it up.


Insta-Love

There is nothing I loathe more than insta-love (otherwise known as two people who literally fall in love within the span of a few hours AKA every girl on The Bachelor). Readers HATE this because it’s clearly not real, feels forced, and makes you want to barf. If you’re going to do something like this, Cupid better be involved, and even then, it should be only one way. This trope breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief and can kill their desire to finish the book.


With that being said, you could make it work via the use of magic, a love potion, or the characters only pretending to be in love (perhaps if they don’t they’ll be killed). Think outside the box and see what you come up with.


Friends to Lovers

One of the best ways to work in a romance arc for two characters that is a “slow-burn” is by using this trope. Two characters can either a) have known each other for a long time or b) just met and now have to work together to survive. Either way, you build the romantic tension between them by having them do things such as holding hands, a hug that lasts a second longer than it should, or a kiss on the cheek. It should be more tender and caring because they know each other so well. This is a wonderful trope to make readers cheer for the characters and get them super invested.


Where most authors will go wrong is by not allowing enough time to pass in order for it to make sense to the story. They need to wrap things up and so they just throw the characters together, which leaves the reader irritated and unhappy (which is the opposite of what you’re aiming for).


Enemies to Lovers

Enemies to lovers is a beloved trope, made popular by Jane Austen in the classic novel Pride & Prejudice: two people who hate each other’s guts (usually for ridiculous reasons) end up overcoming their differences and angst and ending the story with a (spoiler!) declaration of love. The “enemies to lovers” trope often goes hand-in-hand with the “stuck together” trope, since putting two enemies in a room together can lead to some very interesting results. This can be a fun one to play around with and mess with readers.


There is, however, a darker side to this trope that you should avoid or, at the very least, be aware of. In fiction, regardless of genre, this trope has been used to normalize abusive relationships, which is not something we want to do as Christians. Typically, the man is brooding and would be emotionally abusive, while the innocent and sweet woman tries to save him but suffers for it. That is only one example.


If you want to expose how this can be toxic to a relationship (which is extremely difficult), be very careful not to glamorize or make it look like a positive thing. 


In the middle of both of these extremes is the simple, often-overlooked fact that it’s unrealistic to have two characters who hate each other fall in love. You have to build a relationship between characters, and if they’ll always both hate each other, then don’t try to force them together.


Medieval European Settings

98% of fantasy will fall under this trope because it’s one we are used to and have probably read ourselves. It’s one that can be considered overdone, but it’s also one that is easy to sell for the same reason. The Lord of the Rings paved the way for this setting as it was incredibly popular with readers, but that doesn’t mean it is the only setting you can use. The beauty of fantasy is you can create brand new settings that are fantastical, but it requires more forethought and planning in the worldbuilding, hence why people tend to stick closely to it. The Medieval European setting could be thought of as Fantasy 101.


Opening With a Dream

Don’t do this. Just... don’t. Readers HATE this kind of opening because it pulls the rug out from under them before they have gotten more than a few pages into a story. Or it was showing us something amazing, and then we wake up and everything is just...blah. A book that did this well, however, was Summer Twilight by Bridget Smith. The prologue has a sequence that is interesting, compelling, and just vague enough for us to wonder what the heck is happening. But later on in the book, it is revealed that it was a dream one of the main characters was having. This is a great way to put a twist on this trope and get around pulling the rug out from readers—because it’s almost like a spoiler they didn’t know was a spoiler until the right moment.


Cliffhangers

An author should be very, very careful about how they go about cliffhangers in books because too often it’s done poorly. The trope needs to be broken down a little as there are two separate pieces to it that need to be addressed, which are: cliffhanger at the end of the book and cliffhangers at the end of a chapter.


1. Cliffhangers at the end of a book: 

Too often, authors will just end the book with a major cliffhanger, which if part of a series, is okay. Some, however, do this in stand-alone books thinking it will make readers want more. What ends up happening is the reader gets frustrated, leaves a bad review, and will never touch a book by that author again.


That being said, if you are planning a series and have a plan that within the next 12–18 months to get book two out there, ending on a “soft cliffhanger” would work well. What is that, you ask? It’s when you have settled the characters to a point in the story where the reader knows where they are, what they are doing, and what they are hoping to do next. This allows the reader to feel like you’ve brought book one to a conclusion, but the main story is still to take place. This type of cliffhanger is better received by readers and will leave them excited for more.


2. Cliffhangers at the end of a chapter: 

Cliffhangers at the end of chapters are a great tool to pull readers through a book and keep them turning the pages. One of the best ways is to do “mini-cliffhangers” at the end of a chapter. This is where you either build up to a moment and then end it or you raise a question at the end, which is then answered/shown in the next chapter. Doing this gives the reader instant gratification and keeps them reading.


Absent or Dead Parents

Have you ever noticed that pretty much every YA hero is either an orphan or pretty severely neglected? I get why that is. If these kids had good parents, they wouldn’t get into half the shenanigans they do because of things like curfew, and they wouldn’t have that horrible emotional wound that comes along with missing family members. A spin you can give this trope is to have the parents alive and the kids have to wrestle with things differently.


Found Family

For many, this trope is close to home because of the broken families they came from, and I think this is a powerful (and beautiful) trope to use. Usually a character will grow up in a bad home and escape and meet people along the way who take them in and become like family to them. These can be wonderful moments of growth for a character or challenge their beliefs in things they held to for a long time (sometimes both).


You can use this in a negative way as well. For instance, the main character could find people they consider family, but those same people are into things (let’s say drugs) that begin to affect the main character.


Another danger is that characters consider this new group their "family" too early and/or without good reason. You need to be sure they bond meaningfully, and  you should be extra mindful of group dynamics.


Impossible to Pronounce Names

Why can’t the heroine in a fantasy novel just be named Karen? Or Sue? Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than to spend time trying to figure out how to say the name of a character they are supposed to be following. Science fiction does this a lot as well when coming up with names for aliens, creatures, and races. IF you are going to name your character Úläir’zydon you better provide a pronunciation guide for the poor soul who is going to have to read that. Not to mention if you ever plan on having it turned into an audiobook!


Tropes to Avoid


Killing off only/all the diverse representation.

You know how the black guy is always the comic relief? (Looking at you, Disney, for what you did to Finn!) Or how the smart Asian is killed off? Don’t do that. Seriously, you can kill off as many characters as you want, but if they happen to all be white/black/Asian/Latino/etc. you’re going to find yourself in some hot water fast.


Portraying one-note Main Characters.

Like the perfect Mary Sue or the villain who’s evil for no real reason. Give them some dimension and depth! No cardboard characters here, please. These characters add nothing to the story and tend to pull readers out of the experience. 


Now, it’s not bad to have a paragon of good or a truly evil villain without any redemptive qualities. They should be complex and layered. 


An example of this would be Mandar and Ulscia from my book, The City of Snow & Stars. Mandar is a servant of Elohai, and I would consider him a paragon of good because he chooses what is right and encourages others to do the same. Yet I still show him wrestling with why Elohai does things a certain way, but he never loses his faith. 


Ulscia, on the other hand…well, she’s just the worst. She doesn’t mind killing for pleasure or destroying lives and wants to cause as much chaos as possible. She’s evil and there is nothing worth saving, and yet I show that she has feelings and can feel fear. Why? Because it makes her interesting.


Romanticizing abuse or mental illness.

Trust me, there’s nothing romantic about it. Just… Don’t. There is nothing glamorous about abuse or mental illness, and despite Amazon having categories catering to these types of things, that doesn’t mean you should contribute to it. Especially as a Christian, as here’s why:


8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light 9 (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10 [a]trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even [b]expose them; - Ephesians 5:8-11


Ending with “it was all a dream.”

While opening the story with a dream can be tweaked to work, this will just tick readers off. Think of it this way: You’ve lived your whole life, built a business that was successful after years of hard work, got married and had a beautiful family, bought your dream home, and watched the kids grow up. Your business went on to sell for millions of dollars and you were able to retire early and travel the world with said spouse.


Then you wake up and realize you’ve only been asleep for an hour. Disappointed? Now, imagine how a reader feels after they’ve invested their precious time into a book with fleshed out characters, a great plot, and amazing end...only for some random person to wake up from a dream. It undoes everything you just built towards and you lose a reader.


Conclusion

We tried to cover as many of the tropes we could, but we know there are many more out there in the wild. Hopefully this article has inspired you and given you some additional insights on these tropes in some way that helps you decide which ones fit in your story. Remember, readers love tropes when they are done well and are intentional, so don’t be afraid to use tropes in your stories. 


Are there tropes we didn’t cover that you’d like to see us write about? Have thoughts on any of the tropes we mentioned? Comment below and let us know!




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