Okay, maybe this will end up being embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t know what the word “trope” meant in terms of fiction-writing for a very long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I started hanging out with writers and going to conferences and taking classes that the meaning came clear to me. It’s embarrassing because so much of what we do and write and imagine falls into trope categories. In fact, many are the times I have been told “you have to know your tropes” in the romance world.
And so, as enlightenment for all, my Merriam-Webster phone app defines a “trope” as “A common or overused theme or device”.
Yep. That’s a tiny definition, but boy does it cover all the bases! Because the key to tropes is using them well without tripping over into cliché territory.
Just to be clear, a trope is not the same thing as a genre or sub-genre. Romance is a genre. Historical Romance is a big sub-genre. Regency, Victorian, Historical Western, Highlander, and Medieval are all smaller sub-genres. A lot of things fall into the category of genre or sub-genre. You can think of that as the world in which your characters exist. Paranormal erotica is also a sub-genre, as is Time-Travel, etc.
A trope, however, is the common set of circumstances or starting-off point that informs your plot or characters. Some exapmles? *points around at the pics* Mail-order brides, wounded heroes, marriages of convenience. Believe it or not, tropes are really popular right now and super easy to pick out. Boxed sets of tropes are all the rage right now: bodyguard romance, good guy heroes, medieval rogues. They’re all out there.
So, are tropes a good thing? Are they a quickly identifiable theme and comfort zone that help readers categorize stories and find the kind of book they like to read? Or are they overused clichés that feel stale and predictable from page one?
Trope are fabulously useful when it comes to hooking a reader. There is a certain amount of joy in reading about a favorite topic. Knowing what kind of a ride you’re in for can be a great comfort if you’re in the market for escapist, delicious reading. I happen to be a huge fan of the marriage of convenience trope. I love it when the hero and heroine have to get married and then find a way to be in love later. In fact, not gonna lie, three of my six (soon to be even) published works use a variation of the marriage of convenience trope, and I’ve got at least three or four more lurking in the future.
However, the key to using a trope effectively is to lightly touch on the familiar without using it as a crutch. A taste of honey is a wonderful thing, but if someone upends the honey bear and squeezes a giant blob of it right into your mouth, you’re not going to enjoy it. And when it comes to tropes, unfortunately it’s all too easy to lay it on too thick.
My theory is that this is why so many people complain that romance novels are too predictable. I think the heavy-handed use of tropes causes that sense of sameness that turns cloying all too fast. A marriage of convenience is awesome, but when the path that that trope takes sticks too much to the worn path—heroine in trouble must marry the wealthy rake hero to appease parents or stop a much worse marriage, they resent each other at first but are physically attracted, something happens and they are thrown into close quarters where they realize they’re hot for each other, they have sex and suddenly see all of the great qualities about the other and are instantly in love, especially when the heroine ends up in dire straits again and the hero must save her—uh, no.
The same can be said for any trope. Yes, they have been done. That’s part of the point. The rest of the point is to find a unique way to spin the familiar into something new and extraordinary. How do you do that? Well, a good place to start is by being familiar with the ways in which the trope has already been played out. And that means reading a lot of books that use your trope to check for repetition. Sometimes I feel as though authors aren’t checking up on each other’s work to be sure they’re not treading the same path. I don’t think any of us intentionally write the same book that someone else just wrote, but it happens. That’s why we have to be diligent about reading each other’s work.
And isn’t that an awesome thing?
So what are your favorite tropes and what about them make you happy? What are some excellent examples of these tropes?
I’m also a fan of the trope of the hero and heroine being from different social classes. My favorite example of this—my favorite romance novel of them all, in fact—is Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince. The heroine is from the aristocracy and a land-owner and the hero is her land steward. And both characters are written so well and so distinctly that I ate up every word of that book….