Farewell to Tropes: Principles of Trope Twisting

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I realized this week that I wrote nearly 5,000 words on tropes, but never defined the term. Welp, here ya go:

Trope: a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

I stated this a couple of times of the course of this series, but it bears repeating: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with using tropes. Recurring storytelling elements, dare I say stereotypical building blocks, are reused because they work. They serve a narrative function that allows the author to tell a certain type of story. Depending on who you ask, there are either only three, six, seven, nine, or thirty-six unique types of stories that we can possibly tell. Ecclesiastes will tell you that there is “nothing new under the sun.” So, dear reader, let’s both agree to not beat our heads against brick walls trying to come up with a perfectly unique story. The first reaction I got to the first short story I sold was “Oh, it’s exactly like (this other story), but I like it anyway.” 

That said, variety is the spice of life and new variations on old themes are how we keep things fresh. In no particular order, here are some patterns to the advice that emerged while I overanalyzed specific tropes over the past few weeks: 

Think Beyond Role

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If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself plotting along and suddenly need a character that does something to facilitate your plot. Maybe someone needs to teach the protagonist something, or ask just the right question, or act in some way that doesn’t fit with an existing character. There is nothing wrong with adding a character to fill that role, however, if the role-filler is all they are, that character is in danger of being flat and lifeless. 

Strategize for Displaying the Little Details. 

A quick google will yield pages of character creation guides, filled with questions such as: Where are they from? What was their family like? How do they talk? What other unique tics or mannerisms distinguish them? What is the first thing people notice about them physically? What are their strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses? 

All of that and more is all well and good, but it means nothing if it doesn’t make it to the page. 

The next step is to consider how to bring those little life-giving details to the reader. It doesn’t matter if you write five pages of backstory for each main character: If that stuff doesn’t impact your characters’ behavior, it means nothing. 

How does the culmination of who they are affect how they react when they’re happy, sad, or angry? How does their history shape their response to authority, relationships, and society?

Interrogate Your Situations

In some ways, it is easy to spot when a phrase is cliched or a character is stereotypical, and the changes it takes to fix these situations may be relatively small. It can be harder to step away from a scene or an entire plot arc and admit that the entire setup is a trope. 

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If there is a tickle in the back of your mind that says a certain chapter feels a little too familiar, set that chapter down in a chair and interrogate it. What other ways could you accomplish the same goal? What are the pros and cons of these approaches? If you were the opposing force – whether that’s a literal villain, an organization, or the setting at large – how would you interrupt the protagonist’s plans? What stops them from doing so? 

Is the Character Strictly Necessary? 

For one reason or another, sometimes certain characters just don’t work. Maybe they don’t have enough to do. Maybe they live in another’s shadow and you just can’t seem to bring them out. Or, if you could, it would unnecessarily complicate the narrative. In those cases, it is valid to ask whether the character’s role might be better filled by another, already-existing character. This can help streamline our story and free you up to focus on bigger issues. Sometimes, less really is more. 

Happy Writing

I hope this series has given you tools or thoughts that helped round out a problem character or smooth over a plot wrinkle. Best of luck to you all!

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