Please Your Readers – 3 Trope Tactics

tropesI’m a genre whore. 70% of what I read is Young Adult fantasy or dystopian fiction. I’d make it 100% but I actually want to read my friends books and occasionally I like dipping my toes in other stuff like (thrillers, crime, literary fiction) and then there’s non-fiction business, marketing and mindset books and of course, my other love, conspiracies.

But the point is, I’m a big slutty slut slut when it comes to YA fantasy/dystopian. I gobble it up like a starving orphan. Why?

Because I love that shit. I love it so much I’d motorboat them books all night long and carry a caffeine drip to work because I stayed up so late reading (happens a LOT).

But, having read a lot of books in the same genre I can confidently say, they are ALL the same story. No really, they are. But its the familiarity that drags me back.

And it’s the familiarity that drags other readers back too. We actually want to be told the same story, over and over and over. It’s just that we want to be told it in a different way, so it doesn’t feel like the same story.

That’s where tropes come in. Tropes give your readers the familiarity they crave, which is why they are so important to you if you’re a genre writer.

I decided to read a lot of the YA best sellers out at the minute as I’d spent much of the summer reading non-fiction and I missed it. But also, because its important to stay in the know about what’s successful in your genre and also understand the popular tropes. I have a long list I’m trying to get through but I’ve included the books I’ve read in the last week in the post.

Image from Amazon, click here to buy

Image from Amazon, click here to buy (It’s a yes from me, 5* Review too)

But what in the name of literary Einsteinius is a Trope?

Tropes are reoccurring themes, concepts and patterns usually found buried deep inside the juicy guts of a genre.

I see lots of people confuse clichés with tropes. They are not the same. Clichés are tired, cheesey, cringe worthy yawn fests. Like the witch who cackles and has a long crooked nose with a mole.

Cliché = Bad

Tropes = Good

Tropes can, and should be used time and again. And if they’re told in novel way, you’ll have readers gagging like little inkword addicts for more of your book.


ONE – Know what the tropes are

Here’s some examples of genre tropes (soz, they are predominantly from the genres I read.)

Young Adult Tropes

  • Orphan protagonist or excessively distant parents
  • Love triangles
  • A graduating ceremony
  • Lost of emotion and specifically around a first love

Fantasy

  • The chosen one
  • The one magical sword/potion/device that will save the world and is conveniently difficult to locate
  • The mentor character that dies just before the hero is ready to spread his wings

YA Fantasy/Dystopian YA

  • An excessively strict societal system punishments often death or imprisonment
  • No touching/physical contact with opposite sex before marriage (usually some form of chosen/arranged marriage)
  • Class divides
  • A protagonist usually from lower class

Crime 

  • A dead body discovered at the start of a novel
  • A crime fighting detective dedicated to the job but a total maverick
  • A murderer either arrested or killed at the end of the book
  • Serial killers

TWO – Know How To Find The Tropes

Not that I’m trying to teach anyone to suck eggs, but it really is as simple as opening your book legs and being a big fat genre slut.

So how do you find out what the tropes are? Stick to a genre and read as many books as you can stand from it!

I promise on my bestest scouts honour that after a few books, reoccurring themes, concepts or patterns will appear.

Its like a gnawing, a sense of familiarity you can’t quite locate. An uncomfortable itch of knowing. A ‘wait a fucking minute’ moment. Yes, yes you have read this story before. SEVERAL TIMES people. Several freaking times.


THREE – Tropes and Clichés A Worked Example – Learn from the Pros

I read two books this week, after I’d decided the theme of this week’s post… And whaddyahknow, they were practically the same story, only one book I was a bit ‘meh’ over and the other I loved!

The books in question were The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and The Selection by Kiera Cass

Now. I had to rack my brains on this badger, because the stories are obscenely similar.

The plots in my own words:

The Red Queen is based on a blood class system – Red blood you’re fucked and a commoner, Silver and you have magic powers and are effectively royalty. The Silver Prince has to choose a Queen from all the silver royal families. The protagonist spoiler alert – (a red i.e. pauper who has the powers of a silver) gets embroiled and ultimately becomes part of the silver royal family system and chosen to be the wife of the prince she doesn’t love. All the while, a revolution is ongoing the underdog reds are uprising and want their freedom from the oppressive silvers. The protagonist is called Mare (remember this delightful name). She doesn’t want the power or the crown.

Picture from Amazon, you can buy the book here.

Picture from Amazon, you can buy the book here.

The Selection is based on a numbered caste system, Ones are royalty, eights are lowers than slaves and have nothing and surprise, surprise there is also a rebel uprising, although it’s much less of a feature than in The Red Queen. The royal prince has to choose a queen from his people i.e. a woman from one of the lower castes. The protagonist is called America (aka Mer) (yes, yes they do have the same name!). 35 girls from different states go and compete in the selection for the hand of the prince, and of course Mer is one of them. She doesn’t want the power or the crown.

They are the same story, THE SAME STORY folks.

They both stick to the genre tropes – love interests, class systems, rebellions, dystopian themes. But The Red Queen nailed it. The Selection really didn’t.

I’ve been wracking my brains as to why that is, and I suspect its the tropes. While the Selection had them, I saw the end coming from about ohhh page 2. It was predictable, misogynistic and clichéd almost, a tired story I’d read a thousand times. Don’t get me wrong, I read it in two sittings, it was like addictively shit TV, you just can’t help sitting there watching just one more episode, even though you’re about to urinate over your popcorn and remote control you’ve been sat so long. AND I’ll read the rest in the series too, so it’s not all bad.

But The Red Queen had a new take on it. It was the same story but told differently. Aveyard took the tropes and shook that shit up with different twists, a protagonist that thought differently, spoke differently and acted differently.

Tropes and clichés are a dangerously fine line to tread. Do it wrong, sprinkle too much of that knowing story familiarity and you end up with The Selection, a clichéd story we heard a thousand times. Shake it up enough, and you end up with a story that makes genre lovers squeal in ecstasy.

What genre do you write? What are the tropes you know of and do you actively adhere to them or actively avoid them? Let me know in the comments below.

63 comments

  1. I write fantasy, which is very trope heavy. Not even sure I can list everything I use because I just put in what feels right. Chosen one is probably the big one since I do a fate vs free will thing. Honestly, I stopped caring about the trope/cliche thing a while back when I saw an argument about ‘the’ being a cliche.

    1. Possibly (aside from romance) the most trope heavy genre? I love a bit of fate vs. free will – I have some of that in mine too 😀 omg the word ‘the’ is a cliche?????????? WTF?

  2. They say you learn something new every day, and up until now, I didn’t know a ‘trope’ from a hole in the ground. Isn’t this what we used to call a theme or something?

    1. HAHA! You make me laugh, well I guess now you do. I think themes might be different. Do you know the hunger games? The theme in that is sacrifice, but the tropes it uses, are a dystopian society with evil president dictator, a love triangle and in a way a ‘chosen one’ protagonist.

  3. In The Necromancer’s Apprentice (which its first publisher characterised as YA) I definitely went with class divides, and a protagonist from the lower class. Then in the sequel, I’ve added the magical item that’s hard to locate. I don’t know if that makes me proud or sad!

    1. I think tropes are good. Especially for genre writers. At the end of the day you want to give readers what they want right? They come to a genre for the familiarity so I’d be proud 😀

  4. You see, I don’t think I write in one genre only. Wisp, forthcoming before Christmas, I hope. Wisp is a fantasy but although it’s set in an imaginary world, is in an urban setting. Also, it has a love triangle but not the usual one. Then the novel I’m attempting to write for the November thingy is set on this world and involves an ancient Goddess living inside a teenage girl who never grows old and a protector, suprise, surprise, who is a mid-twenties man who starts to fall in love with the girl. In the background, she’s been kept in hell a guest of Lucifer who after she escapes hunts her and she is also hunted by God oh and her Goddess can bring about the end of the world as we know it. hmmmm. I’ve totally confused myself now, sorry Sacha.

    1. Well, not everyone writes in genre specific categories, and that’s okay, the world would be boring if we did. wowza, that sounds like an awesome plot line though – how is NaNo november going? Have you got far through it? Let me know the release date of Wisp – we will have to get you on here as a guest blogger – drop me a line and i’ll let you know the kinds of things I prefer to have.

  5. I never thought about it but it is really true. The readers want to find them in a scenario they somehow can relate to. That’s how they are able to live with the story. But still, it needs to be different enough to keep them interested in exploring the story and finding a new aspect about “their own experience”.

  6. Great examples, Sacha. Some theorists state that there are only 36 plots…total. I imagine certain plots gravitate toward specific genres, and then add in the expected tropes and it may seem like there isn’t much wiggle room. Yet, I completely agree that with a little imagination a story can feel incredibly original. 🙂

    1. I’ve heard that, I’ve also heard it said there are only 6 plots too. Its so true, I couldn’t believe the timing too. It was only when I put the second book down that I realised I’d just read the same book twice! and yet, they were so different. Guess that’s the power of words.

  7. I write fantasy, and I am very aware of the ‘Chosen One’, ‘Magical Object’, and ‘Mentor’ tropes you mentioned. In some ways these have been unavoidable, but I’ve tried to write my first novel without leaning on these (especially the Chosen One trope). My argument is that for a coming-of-age/adventure story, the Chosen One doesn’t really fit well within the narrative — it’s sort of beside the point.

    I’d be interested to get your take on when novels *should have* used their genre tropes more heavily. Is there a risk of a ‘backlash’ from readers expecting a certain trope and not being satisfied?

    1. Yup – that’s a biggie the chosen one. I think some of those big ones are unavoidable too, I mean, they are expected to a certain extent.

      I guess you need to do what is right for the story. If the story requires tropes, use them. If it doesn’t dont. I know that’s not helpful, but it’s also logical, if you’re going to write a chosen one fantasy and then dont use the chosen one trope then your readers aren’t going to be happy. A lot of this also depends on whether you are writing to market? Are you? If so, I’d bend towards the tropes, that’s not to say you can’t mix it up, but if you are targeting an audience, then you need to give them what they want.

  8. Interesting… we are just looking at tropes in short stories in class this week… and metaphors, and similes, and all manner of other writing techniques with unpronounceable names… not sure its English at all! Lol! ?

  9. Yeah, this is definitely spot on. And, of course, you know I know of what you speak. YA is all the same, yet different. Completely addictive, too. Is Red Queen part of a trilogy or a stand-alone? (I didn’t read that part of your post – apologies – because I am about to read the Selection trilogy which I’ve been waiting to read forever.)

    1. Oh dear. I’d skip the selection and read the Red Queen. They’re basically the same story only the Red Queen is a BILLION times better. Yes it’s a trilogy. Two are out the last one due Feb 17. Let me know what u think of the selection see if it irritates u as much as me.

      1. Crap. I’ve been waiting… I have all three… *tears* No, I’m going to read it. I’m SURE I’ve read worse. But I’ll let you know. And I’ll definitely check out the Red Queen. I’m reading some other awesome story at the moment. 😉 But, when I get back to it, am in the middle of the Raven Cycle series. Excellent. Recommend that.

        1. Yeah I was not impressed – you there’s 6 Selection books now?! But only 3 I think from America’s POV.

          Haven’t heard of the Raven cycle, will have a look at that, I just ordered like 13 books all first in series ? I’m trying to pick up all the tropes etc and understand what’s popular at the moment sighhhhh

  10. Excellent post, Sacha! I had never really thought about tropes or their relation to cliches, but you’ve made it clear I need to think about it now. Great information! Thanks!

  11. I have never read it put any better!
    I hear lots of people speaking against stereptypes, and I always think, how can you ever write any kind of genre fiction if you don’t know the stereotypes? You may end up using them and not even realise it, or you may end up using them as a thoughsed other writers have used them before, when if you put some effort in it, you could spin them on their head and really delight your readers, who – becuase they know the stereotypse of the genre too – will expect a completely different thing.
    You nailed down the difference fantastically.

    Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

    1. Well you just put an epic sized smile on my chops! Thank you so much for the lovely compliment. I agree. You neeeeeeed the stereotypes because otherwise you don gun piss yower reyders right off! The thing is, there are so many repeated stories, but like the two books in this post – while they are the same story they are totally different!

  12. I am not really sure; all my genres are different. I’m sure I nail the tropes but not consciously. I just sor tof like to write a story. Not a great one for deconstructing anything. That’s me

    1. Yes absolutely, films too! I mean you don’t HAVE to stick to tropes, it probably makes sense if you wanted a publisher as tropes sell but if you were writing literary fiction then you can bend the rules much more or just writing for yourself then who cares!

  13. I have a distaste for ‘genre’, though I don’t generally hit the YA button. ‘I am Cara’ is my sole dystopian novel, but is it a cliche or a trope? I don’t honestly know. Cara and Anicas, her motorbike, grew out of my head and her weird trade in a world liable to catch fire owes nothing to any other book I know – but there! I am currently back on Scifi, having just written a period fiction piece I hate… three wasted years. Probably as well I don’t do this for a living!

    1. Well, it’s not to say we can’t write without tropes, I mean, damn the world would be well boring if we all wrote the same way and the same stories 😀 thank you for stopping by

  14. This is SO good. TMI time–I sent my first little ditty (crime, sub-genre heist) to six different agents and even had an agent for about 15 minutes. We all agreed there was a problem with the book. None of us could figure out what “it” was. Finally, my dream agent, (who ultimately passed on the book) told me what I had written was not crime, but YA based on the quest, fish-out-of-water, and the age of my protagonist.

    She encouraged me to excise some violence, some coarse language, (okay, like 90% of my dialogue) and all of the suggested sexual situations. She even recommended a YA agent as she doesn’t rep YA. Thing is, I remember transitioning to adulthood as scary and a little mean, nothing expresses fear and anguish as well as a blue tongue. I like nice solid, unambiguous resolutions and nothing says “resolved,” like a .357 round to the face. And, we’ve all borne witness to sexual situations we’re really rather not know about but care too much for someone else to look away. Bottom line: we have to write the story that speaks to us. So, I excised the quest, 60-70% of the FOOW, and omitted all mention of my protag’s age with only hints to make the point.

    Typed all of that to say, you have to, have to, HAVE TO know music theory before you can ever attempt credible improvisation. Books are our music, genre is our music theory, tropes are the rhythm/signature time we play to. Miles Davis revolutionized music–but he was still playing jazz.

    Thanks for helping us all figure out our tune before we put that horn to our lips.

    1. That’s fascinating, ahh I am so sorry your book got passed on, but what a lesson to have learnt – genre (if you want to sell books) is kinda important. BUT like you say, you have to write the book you want to write, and if one genre isn’t calling to you, then fuck the agents, look elsewhere. Write what calls to you <3

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