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Writing And Story Tropes That Need To Die

tropes that need to die. tombstones. pastels. insta-love, shoe then tell, fantasy/ romance, not like other girls, Mary Sue gray stu. illustration drawing by Katherine Kenned


What Is A Trope?

A trope is a commonly used plot, structure, writing style, or character type used in a narrative.

Even though a trope is just a narrative tool utilized by storytellers to build a narrative and convey a story, the word trope has taken on negative connotations. It's a bit like hating a saw because it's such a cliché way of cutting down a tree. I don't hate tropes. I'm a fan of Enemies to Lovers and enjoy a good Chosen One narrative. In real life, we know that many everyday villains struggle to keep their crimes to themselves. They need to brag about how they got away with it. So, a big part of me thinks a villain monologue is the height of realism—why shouldn't they get a chance to show off their conniving scheming ways? Love triangles are a dime dozen irl so why shouldn't they worm their way into our novels?

Why Are Tropes Bad?

Tropes aren't bad, or at least they don't have to be. A bad trope quickly becomes a cliche, and a cliche is seldom a good thing (although I have some arguments to make on that point..)

  • A misused trope is like a broken promise. Readers expect tropes to take the story down a certain avenue, a trope-ish avenue.

  • Trope subversion is a welcome and wonderful thing, but it needs to be done well, which can be difficult.

  • Some people just don't like some tropes, while others will love them; it's just a matter of preference.

  • Certain tropes are seen as irritating, not because they have devolved into a cliche, but because people think they are lazy, unrealistic, or just annoying because they play into certain stereotypes. It's not a cliche; it's a bad trope.

What Is Trope Subversion?

Trope subversion is a popular and effective way to mislead the audience into thinking a story is building towards a particular narrative. The narrative can then surprise the audience by going in another direction. Trope subversion is so popular that it is a trope in itself. The trope subversion trope. I love a good twist, LOVE, so I, by nature, love trope subversion.

Bad Trope, Go to Your Room and No Dinner!

I enjoy a good trope, and there are many that I frankly loathe. A poorly deployed trope usually boils down to poor writing, which is why I've included some examples of common bad writing cliché's in my list.

1. The Insta-love Trope

Insta-love is when two characters meet and fall in love instantly. Does anyone like Insta-love? Does any reader swoon with delight when two characters' eyes meet from opposite ends of the room and fall in love in that single moment? Seriously, I'm curious. It's not that I don't believe those couples who lay claim to love at first sight, and I don't adhere to the 'it's not realistic' criticism.

I have less derogatory things to say about Insta-lust or Insta-attraction, but Insta-love is boring to read. And you just know the author is going to start throwing obstacle after obstacle in the happy, meant to be, couples way to prevent them from getting together. It's boring, and the only time I ever make it through a book with INsta-love is when I'm naively hopeful that there will be a trope subversion. Books like Gone Girl subvert Insta-love; I applaud them.

2. The Not Like Other Girls Girl

The not like other girls trope is… complicated. On face value, the Not Like Other Girls girl is a female character who identifies more closely with traditional male characteristics than traditional female characteristics. She might not care as much about her appearance as her female peers. She could enjoy sports and reject the idea of marriage and babies. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a female character identifying with traditional male activities and mentalities. The problems arise when the Not Like Other Girl character has a blanket derogatory attitude towards 'female traits' and the women who hold them in high regard.

3. Mary Sue and Gary Stu's

If you're like me, you've heard enough criticism of the Mary Sue Trope to make you beg for mercy. I am not opposed, in principle, to a wish-fulfillment female character that's just plain awesome for the sake of being awesome—Lady Superman, if you will. And I absolutely believe criticism of the Mary Sue has sexist overtones. But just because a trope can work and be effective doesn't mean there aren't any good faith criticisms around the Mary Sue Trope and the much less talked about Gary Stu. A Gary Stu is a male character devoid of any true character flaws, and a Mary Sue is his female equivalent.

I have stumbled across one-million-to-many books where the majority of the story involves handing the main character one skillset after another. Got a piano? He can play it. Need someone to fly? Bring her in; she'll get the knack after just one paragraph. Is there a pretty girl or a misunderstood boy in sight? They'll fall in love with our protagonist faster than you can turn a page. It's bad writing. It's boring. Stop it.

4. The Bold Idiot

This character can be male, female, or anything in-between. It's a protagonist who stands boldly in the face of danger and who should, by rights, die for that same boldness, but for some reason (the writer), they succeed and thrive.

The story insists that it's bravery that makes the character face up to a moody King with a taste for heads on pikes. It's grit and determination that makes them duck under a dragon's leg. I know better; the bold character is too stupid to realize that the pointy end of that sword is pointy for a reason. If any other character acted this way, they would be dead three chapters ago or at least missing a finger or two. It's a kind of plot armour, but worse because the writers try and convince us that stupidity is bravery, that idiocy is wit.

5. Show Then Tell; Tell Then Show

No, I'm not talking about the ever-popular Show Don't Tell writer's advice. Advice that is repeated so often that it has lost all meaning to me. While I can't be sure, I suspect this latest plague is born of writers trying desperately to adhere to Show Don't Tell and falling victim to what I have dubbed Show Then Tell.

  • The character solves the mysteries of the universe in under a second, then the author explains to us, the readers, that the character is clever. Expounding for a full page on the cleverness and exactly why, we, the fool readers, should perceive this fete of evident genius as genius.

  • The character donates a kidney to a stranger. Then the author describes how and why this is an act of kindness, perhaps throwing in some backstory to explain the kindness. Side characters gasp in the wings, "How kind you are, primary protagonist!"

  • The character reaches to pull a box down from the top of a skyscraper, and then the author kindly explains to me that the character is, in fact, tall.

I would rather have a whole book of telling than undergo the torture of both showing and telling. Maybe it's a lack of faith in the reader's ability to understand, but I am begging the writer of the world to instead neither show nor tell rather than risk doing both.

6. Witty dialogue that's not witty

Adding 'said wittily' doesn't make a bland line witty! I may love adverbs (and I do, I really do), but this is one instance where I agree with the majority—if you have to add, 'she said wittily,' then the line is NOT witty. If you have to explain the joke, then the joke isn't funny.

If you write, 'said wittily,' then your next line better be someone staring with blank confusion at the weak attempt at a joke. The joke better be that the character attempted to be funny and quippy and failed miserably.

Some things can't be faked. Writers can do research to make a doctor's lines sound plausible. We don't have to be good at math ourselves to have characters that can do sums in a second but being funny isn't something we can google. The witty repartee between two characters is either witty or it isn't. If a writer can't pull it off, then they—at a minimum—shouldn't try to force the reader to believe they are by adding 'said humorously' after every sentence.

7. Romance Masquerading as Fantasy

Romance Masquerading as Fantasy might not be a definitive trope, but I'm putting it forward for consideration. And should it be accepted, it would be first on my list of tropes to be murdered and left to molder with the fishes.

I have zero issue with romance. I don't care if it's light and fluffy or R-rated. Just please, I beg of you, let me know in advance. Too many books are leading me on, and it's cruel. I'm halfway through an excellent fantasy book. The magic system has me intrigued. The world-building makes me want to look around, visit a few shops and buy a souvenir. And then, out of nowhere, all of that work is thrown away in favor of a romance plotline. It's borderline abandoned.

It's as though I was reading the Lord of the Rings, and out of nowhere, I'm reading Romeo and Juliet. Who cares about the ring? Or Mordor? Or Hobbits? What the author now cares about is whether Romeo and Juliet will make it. Will she get a ring on her third finger? (Geddit?). By all means, write a romance if that's what you want to write. While Shakespeare isn't really my bag of chips, I don't think many are arguing that Romeo and Juliet isn't a solid, interesting story. But it's alarming when a book starts off as a fantasy adventure and takes a sharp left turn into suicidal teen romance—What a weird three words to string together.

Most books have the common decency to warn me in the blurb, they make it clear that their book is Twilight and not Harry Potter, but some, well… they want their bread buttered on both sides. And I resent it. Only recently, I got halfway through a book before realizing that it was a BDSM fantasy. Nothing against BDSM, but it was the ENTIRE point of the book; nothing else mattered, not the world-building, not the magic; all of that was simply fodder between steadily escalating raunchy scenes. One minute I was wandering down some grassy slopes, enjoying the clouds, wondering exactly how the magic system was going to pay off, and then BOOM, I fell all unknowing into a BDSM dungeon without quite realizing where I was. I don't count that as trope subversion. It's good writing subversion, engaging plot subversion.

How Does A Writer Avoid Falling Into The Bad Trope Column?

On a subconscious level, we have all been taking these formulaic stories on board, and we repeat them in our writing without meaning to. So how does one avoid falling into bad tropes? Know them, familiarize yourself with the tropes so you can avoid them. If you want to write a love triangle, write it by all means, but do it intentionally, not because you have been conditioned to do it unthinkingly or because you don't know it's a trope and think it's an original idea.


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