Trope (defined in this post as a ‘commonly recurring element in fiction’)



I wanted to ramble a bit about Tropes as they impact fiction, both from a writer and a reader’s standpoint. Some of these thoughts are disjointed to an extent, as I lifted my ideas from my thoughts in past discussions at one of my writing groups.

So, let’s go!

Firstly, I have a love for tropes because they can operate like ‘shorthand’ for an element, idea or genre (thanks for that idea Aliya!) and because they become a shared shorthand. That idea is kind of thrilling to me as a writer – it’s the idea of communicating with so many different readers quickly and effectively.

Of course, the use of tropes can be problematic if a writer simply launches into a work without some level of cultural literacy, without which, we writers could be repeating tropes without any idea of that particular trope’s place in the history of storytelling. This could result in a ‘tired’ story or a missed opportunity for subversion.

On the other hand, a trope handled well (like any other tool in a writer’s toolbox) can be wonderful, no matter how old or well know.

Connected to this idea is when a reader encounters a given trope. Some tropes you read as a teenager perhaps, or someone new to a genre, and it’s all amazing, all new, all fresh! You’re blown away, you can hardly believe how awesome the story is!

But you might not have a lot of context, so you can’t yet see if that trope or set of tropes is being used in a heavily derivative or dull manner. One day, you might not enjoy the same kind of story, you might feel like you’ve seen elements within done better before or since.

Which leads me to the other thing that fascinates me about tropes – once a (popular) writer puts something out there that is ‘original’ or ‘revitalising’ etc that thing then becomes vulnerable to being copied.

And then, before you know it bam it’s beyond trope – it risks cliche.

It’s almost a fragile progression and it occurs at different stages for different readers – for instance, consider different readers who enjoyed Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, Buffy and Twilight.

Each use or create or subvert different vampire tropes to varying degrees. Different audiences will see more or less of the storytelling history in each text.

But to return to the idea of tropes as shared storytelling shorthand, I’d like to try and argue that tropes are necessary.

For instance, if we were to accept that there are only, when you boil all stores down, 7 plots – then don’t we need tropes connected to those plots, in order for the plot to play out?

Doesn’t a Revenge Story need a loved one to be killed to set off the need for revenge? (Most likely.) How the loved one dies will then appear as the trope, for instance, if it’s street scum think maybe Batman or The Crow and so on. 

So if tropes can also connect a story to a tradition or history of storytelling, this might bring a reader comfort. For instance – take a classic trope from fantasy storytelling – opening your story in an inn.

Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss does this but it certainly didn’t hurt his sales or the storytelling. When I read the novel, it immediately established a link to the storytelling tradition and this set the tone for what was to come. I was pleased: my choice in buying the book seemed to have been validated. I thought, yeah, I’m going to enjoy this. (And I did.)

And so it seems that tropes, whether I notice them consciously or not at the time, operate in such a way as to guide me as a reader into choosing one text over another. It gives me an instant snapshot of the type of story I’m about to read – and then, while reading, provide familiarity and comfort and thus enjoyment.

As an example, take this blurb from Legend by Gemmell:

Druss, Captain of the Axe, was the stuff of legends. But even as the stories grew in the telling, Druss himself grew older. He turned his back on his own legend and retreated to a mountain lair to await his old enemy, death. Meanwhile, barbarian hordes were on the march. Nothing could stand in their way. Druss reluctantly agreed to come out of retirement. But could even Druss live up to his own legends?

This isn’t actually the blurb I remember from my copy of the book, but I see ‘The Reluctant Hero’ trope in there right away and it tells me a lot about what to expect in terms of character arc and I felt excited before reading it. I couldn’t wait to see how it would play out – would the arc play into my expectations in a satisfying way? Or would it subvert them and surprise me?


So, there it is, my rambling on tropes, hope you enjoyed it!

2 thoughts on “Tropes as Shared Shorthand

  1. Nicely put, Ash! I agree. Tropes give us that familiarity that allows us readers to know when we’re really going to enjoy a story. As long as the author can use tropes in their own original way, and ensure that the story is fresh and not too predictable, tropes are great.

    1. Exactly, it all comes down to execution – I don’t think writers should discard a useful tool too quickly, huh?

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