To Trope or Not To Trope?

Wounded HeroesOkay, 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?

convenient marriage_heyerThe answer is, of course, yes.

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.

Just the title of this book makes me want to read it!

Just the title of this book makes me want to read it!

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….


16 thoughts on “To Trope or Not To Trope?

  1. Myfavorite trope is probably Beauty and the Beast. The general favorite with the public seems to be Cinderella. Historically, it was more likely to be a girl marrying up than a man doing so. One reason for that was generally the wife took on her husband’s social status. The daughter of an earl who married an actor soon disocvered that people forgot she was the daughter of an earl and only remembered that he had been an actor. This limited their social life greatly.
    I know fiction is fiction, but fairy tales need to be so labeled.

    • That sounds like a whole story in itself! It would be interesting to watch what happens to a woman who marries down. Actually, isn’t there a Victorian mystery series that’s like that?

      • Yes, the Anne Perry Charlotte and Thomas Pitt stories. Charlotte was an upperclass daughter who married a policeman in Victorian Britain. There were friends and family who continued to know them , but on the whole, Charlotte was no longer accepted by many of those who still accepted her sister.

  2. I love this post. You have such a friendly way of writing. Can you be my heroine? I’d never thought of tropes at all. haha. Mine’s the wounded hero. I’ve been wandering around, milking my goats and reading military diaries, wondering why I always wound my heroes 🙂 Now I’m okay with it. My favorite marriage of convenience story in movie form is the super wonderful Sweet Land. Sigh.

  3. I’m not sure it would be possible to write a proper romance without using a trope, even if not deliberately. Like you, I fumbled around for a while before light clicked on about tropes, but I found that I had been subconsciously using them in everything I wrote. You’ve got it exactly right here: “The point is to find a unique way to spin the familiar into something new and extraordinary.” My favorite trope is enemies to lovers because there’s so much opportunity for fabulous dialogue.

    • Enemies becoming lovers is another fun one. And I think that tropes can be incredibly helpful when they’re done right. They can give you focus. Thanks, Ally!

  4. Great post, Merry!

    As they say, “No story is new.” And that’s true, to a point. However, what we writers do is spin it, exactly as you said, to make it “feel” new.

    The reason why myths and fairy tales work is because they resonate within our soul. I’m not talking about Disney cartoons, which are now finally tapping into true tropes, I’m talking about original tales that were passed down for thousands of years. Homer, the myths of the gods, fairy tales are strung together in such a way that even our bones sympathize. Can you tell I’m a big Joseph Campbell, Hero’s Journey advocate?

    My favorite trope is The Ugly Duckling–an outsider, who slowly begins to understand just how beautiful she/he is. Usually the duckling understands this because she’s finally surrounded by like-minded individuals.

    • Thanks, Lani! I read a great Ugly Duckling novella recently. And I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called now, but I think it was an Eloisa James story. Those can be such fun stories.

  5. Enlightening post, Merry. I use tropes all the time, but I try to twist the plot around enough to make it fresh. Adding unusual elements helps, as in my Texas Devlins series where three psychically gift siblings find adventure and romance in the old West.

    I tweeted and shared your post.

  6. Great post, Merry. I had no idea what a trope was, I’m more enlightened for reading this. Personally, I love the bodyguard trope. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because the hero has to be capable to defend the heroine. Maybe because one can be quite sure the heroine will do something to jeopardize her own safety for good reasons.

    Someone To Watch Over Me by Lisa Kleypas is the one I’ve read again and again.

    • Thanks Carole! And oh my gosh, I love Lisa Kleypas. Her series that started with Mine Til Midnight is one of my favorites of all time. I’ve seen a lot of the bodyguard trope out there recently, but I haven’t actually read that many of them myself. I’ll have to get right on that. 😉

  7. I am still drawn to heroine in disguise tropes. Probably because the first book I ever read on my own, under no coercion when I was a girl, was about a girl disguised as a boy on a wagon train. It opened the doors for me to finally be excited about books…I haven’t stopped since!
    And then there is the incomparable Diana Gabaldon…I’m ruined for life. I have yet to meet another author that can spin a tale like that woman’s mind…

  8. This sums up pretty well why I’ve stayed away from romance novels since I was about 15. They are just not my taste and they seem so predictable. (I feel the same about romance/rom-com movies, which usually bore me to no end.) I’ll dabble occasionally in horror if it’s good, or really meaty historical fiction, or fiction with a big socio-political bent. Though I do like Tracy Chevalier and Larry McMurtry. Otherwise, non-fiction all the way. But reading your blog broadens my horizons w/ a window into other writers’ work.

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