Let’s be honest, y’all. Tropes have a bad reputation among fiction writers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the word “trope” leveled at something like a weakness. “Oh, but she’s just writing to trope…” we hear, like putting tropes into your work is a bad thing.
But let’s look at this from a different angle.
Have you ever been on social media and read a meme that just nailed you?
My last one was, “Ninety percent of my text messages are one-time codes because I forgot my password to something.”
BOOM. Nailed me.
I actually opened my phone to check it out and, sure enough! In the last day, fully fifty percent of my text messages were one-time codes. I laughed, pulled the meme into a folder I keep entitled, “NAILED ME” and then sent it to my two best friends.
Memes work for the same reason that tropes work.
When I read something and I feel understood, or I feel like my emotions are validated, I instinctively want to read more of that thing. It’s not conscious, and this is so important. The desire to read more is not conscious. Just like, if you read that “ninety percent” sentence above and felt like it nailed you, as well, you instinctively want to read more of this piece.
(Even if you didn’t, you’re still curious for some reason. Somehow, we’ve opened a loop together that you want to close, so you’re still reading. Hey, hi, Mom! Thanks for still reading. It gets way better later, I promise.)
The neurobiology of the human brain is such that it’s always seeking same-same. We’re looking for safety (even if we’re not aware of it). We’re looking for commonality (even if we think we’re not). We’re looking for, do I belong here, and what tropes tell us (or what emotional resonance tells us) is… yes, Susan! You belong here!
Or, insert your name for Susan’s.
So, let’s answer the question in the title: To Trope or Not To Trope?
(I mean, obviously Becca is going to come down on the side of “trope” right? It’s why she’s writing this piece… the answer is To Trope. Isn’t it?)
The answer is: not to trope.
YIKES! Here I thought I was, understanding all the things Becca was laying down, and now here I am, not understanding. Why, Becca, why?
Stay with me here.
One of the most resonant books I’ve ever read started with these words, “He woke up in a white room.”
If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve probably already read The Game Is Life by Terry Schott, and you know what happens after he wakes up in that white room. And it’s very possible that, before I met Terry Schott (the author of that book), I would have said, “To Trope!” is the answer to the question I posed in the title. But what I’ve learned from Terry Schott is that, very clearly, some authors are not made to write to trope.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are tropes all over this book. Everywhere. There’s an orphan boy looking for a father figure. There’s a father figure seeking a son. There’s unrequited love. There’s world in peril. There’s a messiah figure. There’s a hero’s journey. Seriously, the whole book resonates.
But Terry Schott did not intend to write to trope. I know this because I asked him about it and not only was the “tropey-ness” not intentional, it’s actually a sore point sometimes because it reduces a great story about a great group of people to a list of check-boxes when readers discuss it.
So when I ask, “To Trope or Not To Trope,” it is a genuine question. Not a rhetorical one. Let me explain.
A trope is: a series of stakes and emotions that are so familiar, they resonate.
The orphan child is a trope we see famously, everywhere in film and literature. Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, and practically every Disney movie ever made.
Harry or Frodo or Cinderella are orphans, though, not because of the trope itself, but because having an orphan child resonates with readers. We instinctively understand, even if we’re not without parents, that being a child without parents would give me certain emotions or motivations, naturally.
In the case of Harry, the certain emotions are: a desire to be reunited with my dead parents. In the case of Frodo, the certain emotions are: freedom to do what I want. In the case of Cinderella, the certain emotions are: finding a new family because my family sucks.
So, even with the orphan trope, there are many different reasons it might resonate. But the key is, we get it. We understand why Cinderella is so desperate to get out of that house. We understand why Frodo is so willing to go on an adventure. We understand why Harry is so desperate to find a place where he can belong. Because either we don’t have good parents and the motivation of bad or absent parents resonates (sympathy) or we have good parents and would be sad to lose them (empathy), and can understand how the lack of good/present parents could be motivating.
Of course, not all of us like orphan tropes, but if it’s anything like other standard deviations (and psychology suggests, it is), resonance is going to hit about 66% of people when you have a trope like that. When you think of the total reading population, that’s a large swath of people who could potentially feel sympathy and empathy for an orphan trope.
What we, as readers, are really saying to the character, when we read about their story is, I get you. Or same-same, depending on whether it’s sympathy or empathy driving us.
Now, depending on which of our great industry gurus you’re listening to, when it comes to how resonance happens (both Dr. Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Id List discussion/forthcoming book and Theodora Taylor’s Universal Fantasy discussion/forthcoming book touch on how this resonance might happen, and I highly recommend checking out their work), but what we’re primarily dealing with today is: To Trope or Not To Trope?
Why might I decide not to intentionally write to trope, even if I believe that tropes resonate?
The reason I brought up Terry Schott’s The Game Is Life book is because, while full of tropes, it was not written “to trope” and I do think it’s important to know that it’s possible to write a book full of tropes without intending to write a book full of tropes. Many of us are wired to write stories intuitively, and not intentionally, and that’s not a bad thing. Because we talk a lot about personality in the work I do, I want to highlight something important.
We are all very different people, and that difference matters in how we approach and execute our writing. We all know “what works for me” doesn’t “work for others” but somehow, when it comes to things like, “should I write to trope,” we allow ourselves to be swept away into best-practice-land instead of acknowledging that what works for others doesn’t necessarily work for me.
Some of us can write “to trope” and some of us notice the tropes after we write the story. Both can be effective ways to write stories, but not everyone is wired to intentionally try to put tropes into their work from the point of creation forward. Some of us should be doing that work backward, like Terry Schott, rather than intentionally.
This is the primary breakdown of almost all the “shoulds” that we hear around the writing world. There is no should (none, zero, nada) that applies equally, to all writers, regardless of their brain chemistry. Not a single one. And you can trust me on this because my primary academic work is in author success. After coaching thousands of writers, I have yet to find a single tenet that’s consistently predictable in all writers. Zero. (And yes, that includes the infamous, writers write maxim.) There are none.
This is why I’m firmly on the side of Not To Trope or at least, not to intentionally trope, for most of us, because the largest portion of predictive personality among writers is “intuitive” or “intuition.” And when that’s the case, it often means that I should just tell a great story, and then go back and look for ways to increase tension or up stakes by using tropes, rather than try to do it “from page one” because that impacts the storytelling autopilot mechanism in your head.
And then those of us who prefer intentionality in our writing, Becca would come down on the side of To Trope because for you, intention is everything.
But ultimately, tropes are not a bad word. And they are not a weakness or a disease. They don’t need to be intentional, but if you want your work to resonate, they will be there. Because like the meme, where I yell, “It Me!” at my phone, or the TikTok Video that I stitch or duet because I can’t not squeal about how similar I am to the original poster, tropes are about resonating. They’re about finding the center of someone’s heart, patting it on the head, and reminding the person they’ve found their same-same.
Tropes. Are. Life. For fiction writers. Life.
So, ultimately, when it comes to whether or not to find tropes or embrace tropes in your own fiction writing, dear writer, I Trope You Dance.
Becca Syme is a USA Today bestselling author of romance and mystery. She holds a master’s degree (psychology of leadership) and is a Gallup-Certified CliftonStrengths Coach, where she's coached 5000+ individual writers in success systems. Becca is the host of the YouTube QuitCast channel and a mystery author. She lives in the mountains of Montana where it is always winter and never Christmas.
You can find her website at http://rlsyme.com
© 2023 Margie Lawson, all rights reserved.