Know Thy Tropes

Let’s talk about tropes. We love them. We hate them. Whether the author sticks to them or subverts them, they are the foundation of every bestseller.

Tropes are common (potentially cliche) plot or rhetorical devices in books or television. Examples include, but are not limited to, enemies to lovers, the chosen one, girl/boy next door, love triangles, evil stepparent, and so on. It’s impossible to write without including some tropes, but like anything else, everything in moderation.

I’ve been taking more time to do some leisure reading lately, and I’ve been on the hunt for a good book. I will be the first to admit that I do not read highbrow literature. I’m not leaning back with anything that would show up on an English class syllabus on any level. I’m a sucker for an interesting heroine that can kick ass, ideally using magic or some sort of dagger; include some witty banter and some sexual tension with a love interest, and I’m on board. But, but, but the writing has to be good. The plot can be cheesy and predictable, but the writing has to be well done.

So I started reading this book the other day, and let me tell you, this author took every trope and ran with it. I won’t name names, but this book is a bestseller, the first in a series of successful books, and is very highly rated across websites. I downloaded the ebook from the library and within the first few pages, I knew we were in for the cringiest of adventures. By the second chapter, the protagonist had been mistaken for someone else and kissed by her future love interest (who later was assigned to her personal guard). The main character is the chosen one (literally called that), had been secretly trained by her father-like older guard, is best friends with her maid, and chafes within her role (which is a thinly veiled metaphor for female oppression). If that wasn’t enough, the book also introduces creatures that are basically werewolves and vampires with different names. 

Every time I thought I had this book and its lore figured out, the author threw in another element that had me texting my friends in disbelief over the sheer amount of things happening. This book was basically a mish-mash of every YA trope, and I only got halfway through before I gave up trying to read anymore. Even with the tropey plot, the writing was really the worst part for me. Some sentences had me actually laughing out loud over the cheesy phrases and cliches, and after a little while, it stopped being fun and just settled on cringey. I try to finish every book I start, something my mom taught me as a kid, but I have so little time for leisure reading that I didn’t want to waste it on a book that I could already predict the plot to, with bad writing to boot.

This isn’t to knock that series or the people that love it (which is why I shall leave it nameless). Rather, it made me think of the tropes I gravitate towards, both in books and television, and even the ones I use in my own writing. Tropes are fun and necessary. They are narrative devices that drive the plot forward with their familiarity. They serve a purpose and can contribute a lot to a story. But they’re also a crutch and can easily distract from the unique elements of the narrative. When paired with cliche writing, tropes become overwhelmed by their familiarity and the reader is stuck with the same story over and over again. Combining tropes in new ways can mitigate this, but they have to serve the story as a whole.

As always, you get to decide what you like. If the familiarity of tropes makes you happy, then have at it. The joy of reading is getting to choose which worlds you visit. My favourites usually include a mythical medieval land (trope) and an assassin/princess/bandit warrior taking on the forces of evil (again, trope). Let me know your favourite tropes in the comments!

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