A trope is a commonly recurring plot or character dynamic that can be recognized across different stories, but is often tweaked to fit each particular story’s circumstances. A trope is similar to using character archetypes—characters who represent a universal trait or pattern, like the antihero, Good Samaritan, or nosy neighbor—but for your plot! A trope can act as shorthand for your readers so they have clear expectations. But they can also be overdone. Here at Writer’s Relief, we’ve reviewed thousands of short stories and novels and can offer you some pros and cons of using tropes when writing.
The Pros And Cons Of Using Tropes When Writing
Tropes are popular in the world of rom-coms, but can also be found in mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, and pretty much any genre—and with good reason. Popular, recognizable plotlines or character dynamics offer great guidelines, and it can also be fun for writers to turn a trope on its head!
Common Plot Tropes
- Forbidden love
- Secret identity, such as a royal hiding their status
- Short-term amnesia veiling the circumstances of a mystery
- The chosen one
- Fake dating
- A protagonist with dead parents
- The hero’s journey
- Friends to lovers
- Enemies to lovers
- Coworkers to lovers (we’re sensing a romantic pattern here!)
- Ending on a cliffhanger
- Found family
- A villain’s redemption arc
- Love triangles
- The impossible choice
Cons Of Using Tropes In Your Writing
Predictability. Many tropes are beloved—but they’re also well-known, so they might weaken the suspense in your book or short story. For example, if you’re writing a thriller and stick too closely to tropes while crafting your central mystery, your readers will immediately figure out where your plot is headed and might decide the outcome is predictable and not worth reading.
Becoming cliché. An example would be Killing a Red Shirt. This trope, which takes its name from the almost guaranteed death of supporting officers in the Star Trek universe, is so familiar, it has become the source of countless memes and Internet humor.
If you’re using a trope to shape a major plotline, remember that all the elements around it—character development, world-building, and plot twists—need to be unique and stand on their own.
Problematic elements. Did you ever notice that the diverse characters are often the first to die? Readers who identify as LGBTQIA+ and people of color have noticed. Be sure you aren’t using any stereotypical tropes that might offend readers.
Pros Of Using Tropes In Your Writing
Predictability. That’s right, this made our pro list and our con list! While some readers may roll their eyes at a familiar story trope, others are depending on that familiarity. Especially if you’re writing in an established, popular genre (romance or cozy mystery, for example), readers will expect certain tropes to appear in your plot—and will be disappointed if they’re missing from your story.
Establishes your genre. If you’re new to your genre, be sure to read, read, read the popular books and fringe classics under that umbrella. It’s the only way to learn about any implicit rules and expected tropes. Using a “required” trope will cement your book’s place within your genre.
Gives you a road map. Getting past a blank page can be intimidating when you don’t know what’s in store for your characters. With well-placed tropes, you’ll always have an idea of what’s supposed to happen next to help you get un-stuck!
Tips For Using Tropes In Your Writing
- Make sure the tropes are believable. While asking your readers to suspend disbelief is allowable, be sure you don’t veer too far into the unbelievable. Watch for any eye-roll-inducing holes your story’s tropes might open up.
- Subvert a trope—or at least throw in a little surprise! Ask yourself: When readers recognize a trope unfolding, what do they expect will happen? Is there a surprising twist you can add to grab your readers’ attention? Or, if you really want to keep your readers on their toes, perhaps a recognizable beginning might lead to an unexpected ending for your characters.
- Don’t use too many tropes. Most readers and critics feel that tropes work best when they’re chosen wisely and used sparingly. Don’t build your whole plot out of tropes! Select one (or a small handful) and think about how your unique characters can help make those few tropes work memorably for your story.
Literary tropes are common and popular for a reason—something about that plotline or dynamic is relatable or desirable! And it’s virtually impossible to write a story these days without at least touching on a trope or two. Lean into it and let yourself have some fun!
Question: What story uses a trope very well?