Since I am both an avid reader and writer, story tropes have made themselves quite apparent to me over time. The moment I learned what story tropes were, I gained the ability to actively decide which tropes I wanted to include or steer clear of when writing my own stories.
So, what are story tropes? Story tropes are plot devices that are heavily utilized across fiction as a whole, or within a specific subgenre(s) of fiction. Story tropes may also be found in world-building, character development, relationships, etc.
The opinions of story tropes vary depending on the trope, so it can be difficult to separate the good from the bad at times. Below is more information to help you employ tropes in your own writing.
Examples of Story Tropes
The love triangle
Example: Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen
When a character must choose between two love interests.
The “I’m not like other girls” character
Example: Arya from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
When a female lead actively seperates herself from the rest of the female species. They dont want to be like other girls. Other girls are percieved as lesser-than in their eyes.
A character who’s gone missing
Example: Margo in Paper Towns by John Green
When there’s a missing person that a story’s characters are actively searching for.
Example: Steven King’s Castle Rock that is used as the setting for multiple of his works
These small towns usually have something interesting to them: captivating residents, a magical element, something eerie, etc. On the other hand, it sometimes acts as a boring place that the main character wants to move away from.
The Unlikely Hero
Example: Katniss in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The unlikely hero is seemingly insignificant or mundane until given whichever task deems them a hero.
The Reluctant Hero
Example: Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The reluctant hero wants no part of their mission at the start of the story. Like the unlikely hero, they are seemingly mundane, but something special or otherworldly is revealed about them. They are often unaccepting of their resposibility or role at first.
The “Bad Boy”
Example: 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James
These bad boys are often the romantic interests of well-behaved, soft-spoken females.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls
Example: Looking for Alaska by John Green
Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is what he describes as a female character who “…exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Why Are Story Tropes Used?
There’s a reason these plot devices are considered to be cliche at times, and that’s because many are thought to be overused by writers and readers alike.
I believe tropes are used for these reasons:
- Writers are inspired by work that they read and love, sometimes unknowingly. If you read, coming across tropes is inevitable. These plot devices are often the first things that come to mind when brain storming, since we’ve seen them so many times.
- Writers thoroughly enjoy the tropes they use. Writing is subjective, and there are certainly people out there who adore a good love triangle or reluctant hero. Some writers plan entire stories around a certain trope, fully aware that it’s a trope when doing so.
- Many books that use them are successful. It’s easy for a writer to see the global success of the Twilight Saga and think love triangles are the way to go. Why not use something people seem to enjoy?
When To Use A Story Trope
There are a few things you can ask yourself when considering the use of a certain story trope:
Am I already using other tropes?
Many stories and novels use multiple tropes, but it’s important to limit yourself at some point. There’s no strict rule to this, but keep in mind that tropes may become more apparent to your readers if paired with other cliches.
A love triangle that involves an unlikely hero is fine. A love triangle that includes an unlikely hero from a small town who’s trying to find a missing person with their bad boy love interest, and is unlike other girls? Probably pushing it.
Am I putting my own twist on the trope?
We’ve seen many love triangles in our day, but we haven’t seen love triangles in every scenario or involving every type of person. An LGBTQ+ love triangle, for example, wouldn’t feel as trite as the usual boy-girl-boy subplot. If you’ve found a way to write a trope in a fresh, original way, you should feel confident in your use of it.
Is the trope necessary?
Imagine your story without the trope. Is the story worse? Better? If the trope is pertinent to your story, use it. To practice determining this, try to imagine certain stories you read without whichever tropes they use. Would you remove it if you were the writer?
Story Tropes To Avoid
Story tropes aren’t inherently bad. That being said, there are some tropes that have had their fair share of usage, and now carry a negative connotation.
You want to stray away from using tropes that the majority of your readers might dislike. You obviously have full creative freedom to ignore possible backlash, but it’s important to stay up to date on which tropes readers, agents, and publishers are talking negatively about.
I can mention two from the small list I’ve given above:
The “I’m not like other girls” character
Most people find these characters extremely unlikable and insulting nowadays. Although it may be tempting to make it known that your female lead is unique, putting down the average girl in the process isn’t something particularily admired by readers, and has often been complained about.
An exception: It’s important to note that characters like Arya from A Song of Ice and Fire are exceptions to this. Why? Arya is different than the average girl, but she’s within a society that forces that average lifestyle onto her and acts in spite of it.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls
Manic Pixie Dream Girls are equated to poor character development alot of the time. If the only purpose your female lead has is to give your male lead an epiphany, then you aren’t writing your female lead correctly. Your female lead should be her own person who directly affects the plot in their own way. They should not rely on your male lead existing to be included in the story.
An exception: Although this example comes from a film, Summer from 500 Days of Summer (2009) is an example of the manic pixie dream girl trope done well in my opinion. The story deconstructs the role of a manic pixie dream girl, supporting the idea that they don’t actually exist.
Where To Find Opinions on Tropes
You may be wondering what other tropes readers hold distaste for. If you’re looking to write and publish stories for the public, you might be interested in knowing what people like and dislike.
Here are two places you can search for discussion about tropes:
A large community of YouTube called BookTube is dedicated to book talk. I’ve watched many videos centered around people’s favorite/least favorite tropes. This is a great tool, because you can watch as many videos as you’d like and create your own consensus. Six people said they hate bad boys? Something to consider. Five people said they love a missing character? Good to know.
You can even search for favorite/least favorite tropes within specific genres. Your results may be limited depending on the genre, but the BookTube community is vast, and it’s defintely worth a search.
Here’s an example of one of these videos:
Not only are these videos entertaining, but they offer opinions on multiple tropes at once, and can open your eyes to tropes you weren’t even aware existed.
Twitter has its own reading/writing/publishing community, and I often see people discussing tropes they hate and love on there. Just today, I saw three seperate people mention tropes they’d like to see more of. You can even join in on the discussion!
How do I keep my story from being cliche?
If you’re using tropes or “cliches”, try adding aspects to your story that aren’t often paired with that trope or cliche. An example of this would be a love triangle that results in all three characters agreeing to a polyamerous relationship. Do something unexpected with it!
Will using tropes make readers compare my book to other stories?
Readers are going to compare your book to other books regardless. Using a trope may give them more ammunition to do this, but it’s important to keep the worry of comparison out of your writing process. No one has written the same exact story as you, regardless of overlapping tropes. Have confidence in your own uniqueness.
How do I think of original story ideas?
If you wish to steer clear of tropes as much as you can, you should allow yourself more time during your brain-storming process. Let your ideas marinate before settling on the use of a trope. I find my best ideas are not the first ones I think of, and usually grow more creative over the course of plotting.