The Good, The Bad & The Overdone: Tropes in fiction (and how to use them effectively)

Tropes are defined as “the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech.” But in recent decades, it’s also come to describe a commonly recurring plot devices used across creative works.

I am sure you’re recognized a few favorites (or not so favorite) while reading: The Chosen One, love triangles, fake engagements, etc. There’s a ton of em!

And there are pros and cons to using tropes in your own writing. But for me, tropes are like spices. Use the right amount and it will give flavor and life to your recipe. Use too much and you’ve smothered it, leaving it inedible. Follow the recipe exactly and it will taste just like everyone else’s.

Okay I may not be great at metaphors… But I am great at recognizing tropes and evaluating their effectiveness. So let’s walk through some of the more popular ones in fiction to see if they’re brilliant or just plain tired and how you might be able to use them for your own story.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions below are purely my own. Every reader loves, hates or loves to hate different tropes, and ALL tropes can be done poorly or executed beautifully.

Well… Maybe not all. But we’ll get to that.

Insta-Love

Let’s get this one out of the way first… 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). Insta-lust or insta-attraction, I’m all in. But love is gonna take more than one chapter to get behind.

Enemies to Lovers

Now this… This I can definitely get on board with. I love love love seeing enemies who hate each other slowly fall in love. After all, love and hate walk a fine line, and both need a little passion. Add in some bickering or fighting and it’s an automatic ship for me.

Medieval European Settings

I don’t have anything against fantasies set in this type of world BUT I do love seeing something different. And luckily, there are some fabulous novels set in uniquely inspired worlds out there right now!

Opening with a Dream

I haven’t seen this done in a while, and I think that’s because it has recently become taboo according to agents and publishers. And the reason behind that is you are asking your reader to invest in something that is then deemed null and void when the character wakes up. It can be done, but be wary.

Cliffhangers

Another tricky one. Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger is one thing, but what about ending your novel with one? First of all, only do this if there’s a sequel. Otherwise your readers will hate you. But even then, enough has to wrapped up to keep the ending satisfying while still piquing interest for book 2. These three did it beautifully.

Happily Ever Afters

Who doesn’t love a good happily ever after? But there are times when they aren’t appropriate. Take The Hunger Games series. It’s full of drama and war and dark concepts. If everything had been perfectly and happily wrapped up in the end, it wouldn’t have felt realistic or true to the story. Instead it was bittersweet. Nothing wrong with that.

Anti-heroes

A recent craze in the publishing world is morally grey characters. And I love it!!! Think Severus Snape, Jack Sparrow, Celaena Sardothien, Deadpool. No one is all good or bad, and it’s time our books represent that.

The Chosen One

I am a little more hesitant about endorsing The Chosen One. Harry Potter seemed to have started/renewed this trope, and while it worked for J.K. Rowling, it’s become awfully overdone since then.

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I’d rather see an unlikely hero or a “chosen one” that has no interest in actually being that person. Otherwise, it feels a little too predictable.

And when it comes to prophecies, that’s a hard no for me.

The Redeemed Villain

What I do love is a villain with the chance and ability to redeem themselves. Like I said above, no character is all good or all bad, and most – or I should say well-developed – villains are being evil for what they feel is a good reason. Watching a character come to terms with that is a powerful arc, and you can learn how to do it here.

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. But every once in a while, I’d like to see a happy family.

Found Family

And in that vein, I adore found families in novels. We all know that sometimes the family we choose is better than the one we were born into, and novels that recreate those characters are a favorite of mine, especially the ones below.

Impossible to Pronounce Names

Why can’t the heroine in a fantasy novel just be named Karen? I am all for unique names, but I am living proof of the difficulties in pronouncing and spelling said names. And I don’t want to have to struggle with it while I read. So leave your Chaol’s and Daenerys’s at home.

Slow Burn Romance

YESSSSSS. Just take all my money and make them kiss already! Add in a “oh no, there’s only one bed left in the entire town, I guess we have to share” and I’m THERE FOR IT.

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Love Triangles

Ahh the ultimate controversial trope. I can handle a well-done love triangle, but they don’t seem to work that way most of the time. I just don’t think it’s realistic for two people to fall totally in love with the same person who is usually not that special *cough Bella cough* I’d much rather see a love square or pentagon OR a love train. Person A is in love with Person B who loves Person C who hates everyone. Mix it up!

On that note, there is nothing wrong with characters falling out of love with one person and then in love with someone else. Think Elena/Damon/Stefan in The Vampire Diaries and Feyre/Rhysand/Tamlin in ACOTAR. In fact, that is another of my favorite tropes.


Now there are some tropes that you shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Whereas the above can all be done well if you work at it, these cannot.

  • Killing off only/all the diverse representation. You know how the black guy always dies first in a horror movie? You can kill all the characters you want, just be sure its balanced.

 

  • Portraying one-note 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.

 

  • Romanticizing abuse or mental illness. Trust me, there’s nothing romantic about it. Just… Don’t.

 

  • Ending with “it was all a dream.” There is no better way to make your readers angry than to totally erase the entire plot up to the end. Looking at you Erika Johansen.

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How to use tropes in your story

So now that we’ve discussed some of the favorite and just plain tired tropes, let’s talk about how you can use them in your own writing to create something wonderful.

First things first, study your genre. Certain tropes are more popular – or even sometimes required – in each genre. For example, if you are writing genre romance, it’s pretty much a given that you will need a happily ever after at the end.

Furthermore, readers like to know what to expect. If you write a fantasy and don’t follow any of the standard structures or tropes, your reader is going to be thrown off. Now I am not saying to create a carbon copy of your favorite novel. BUT use those tropes as a jumping off point or a framework then add something new to make it your own.

An example: Vampire love stories were nothing new in 2005, but Stephenie Meyer was the first to make them sparkle. Say what you will about Twilight, but it’s a perfect example of using an existing trope and adding your own unique spin.

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You can also totally flip a trope on its head. Start leading up to one that your readers will be familiar with, get them comfortable with the story, and then subvert those expectations completely.

A few other trope tips:

  • Don’t use a trope as an excuse to slack on character development/world building.
  • Avoid turning a trope into a cliche. Tropes are familiar. Cliches are boring, lifeless and predictable.
  • Don’t try too hard to avoid them.

It’s almost impossible to write a story without at least one, so as long as you are sure to make them your own, try your hand at some tropes!

What are your favorite tropes to read or write? Any great examples of a well-executed trope? Share in the comments!

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