We’ve all heard we need to stay away from the usual tropes when writing a story. But what is a trope anyway?
Most dictionaries define it as the language used in a figurative sense, or a theme or device so overused it becomes cliché. Other definitions exist, but for this post, we’ll leave it at an overused idea, or stereotype.
Have you ever read something so cliché-ridden that you had to put it down because it got old and tired fast?
Some examples of the tired old cliché include the young woman dressing to explore a haunted house in anything except sensible clothing, especially shoes. You know when she tries to run away in those stiletto heels that something terrible will happen. Or how about the princess who wanders off to be “independent?” You just know she’ll be captured by the antagonist and tied to the railroad tracks to be rescued by the hero.
But have you ever read a book that turned a trope on its head and kept you turning the pages?
Sir Terry Pratchett was a master at upending clichés. Pratchett conceived Discworld to play around with stereotypes and satire. In the first book, The Colour of Magic, Pratchett introduces Discworld, a disc the size of a planet, balanced on the backs of giant four elephants, carried through space by an enormous sea turtle. The series became so popular that by the time of Pratchett’s death in 2015, he had published forty-one Discworld novels.
Likewise, Piers Anthony and his Xanth series used puns and clichés to build an entertaining world that (sometimes) coexists with Florida. Anthony uses magic as his trope in this series. In the first book, everyone has a magical ability (a talent) except the main character, Bink, and a rare few races. He is a mundane born to a world of magic users. From its first publication, Xanth has been a hit with readers, and to date, forty-two Xanth books can be found on shelves.
Gregory Maguire told the story of Oz from Elphaba’s point of view in his novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire made a career out of turning fairy tale tropes around and telling his adult stories from the PoV of the antagonist of whatever fairy tale he retold. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Maguire imagines what it could have been like as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. His retelling of the tale gives us more than we could have imagined from reading the original story.
Another author who turned tropes on their heads was Robert Lynn Aspirin and his MythAdventure series. The first book, Another Fine Myth, begins the story of an inept apprentice, Skeeve, as he follows his master, the demon Aahz, from world to world. Aspirin turns the demon trope on its head in this telling, when Aahz tells Skeeve that the word “demon” translates to “Dimension Traveler.”
As you might have already surmised, most books that I’ve read fall into the fantasy realm. Other trope turners exist in literature. You’ll find those books are frequently allegories or metaphors for the world as it stands today. We read metonymies all the time in the news. And if you haven’t already guessed, Mad magazine was full of tropes thrown on the table for public consumption.
I keep reading that publishers will put down a manuscript if it’s full of tropes. I suppose that’s true if the writer doesn’t know how to turn the trope upside down. Or doesn’t twist it soon enough in the manuscript. My story began with a trope—a vivid dream with the MC waking up and the inciting event she dreamt about occurring right away. I decided to ditch the first chapter, not make it quite so clear she was waking up (apparently publishers hate that too) and launching the tale from there. I can work in the dream details as the tale unfolds because one of the events in the dream will impact future developments in the story.
If you find yourself writing tropes, you need to turn them around in such a way that it keeps your readers turning pages. Humor, irony, and satire are ways to address the usual tropes. I’m still to figure out a way to turn my trope-filled beginning on its head, especially since my story isn’t one that lends itself well to blatant humor as a theme.
What about you? What kind of tropes to you find yourself reading and writing about? I would love to hear from you.