Using tropes: new stories from old parts
Did you ever hear that tidbit about how there are only seven basic plots?
Overcoming the monster. The protagonist has to defeat the antagonist.
Rags to riches. The poor protagonist gains wealth, then loses it but learns a valuable lesson.
The quest. The protagonist sets out to find a special object or place, overcoming challenges en route.
Voyage and return. The protagonist travels somewhere foreign and returns having grown as a person.
Comedy. Light-hearted story with a happy ending.
Tragedy. The protagonist’s crucial flaw leads to their downfall.
Rebirth. The protagonist experiences an event that forces them to change their ways and grow.
Given that there are billions of stories in the world, it goes without saying that there’s a fair bit of plot overlap. And when writing within one of the seven basic plots, we’ve likely used a handful of common tropes, too.
So what can we do about it? How, in this day and age, can we write an original piece of fiction? Let’s discuss…
What are tropes?
A trope is defined as ‘a significant or recurrent theme’. It’s an aspect of the plot that we see used frequently, often within specific genres. Some popular examples are:
A big-city dweller going back to their small hometown
The protagonist being the Chosen One
A grouchy old mentor reluctant to train the newbie
An orphaned protagonist (commonly in YA)
Like with a lot of writing, it’s far too subjective a topic to say which tropes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some readers and writers love the tropes that others can’t stand. Neither party is right, because there is no right answer. You either like them or you don’t.
While most tropes are like marmite – love them or hate them – there are certain ones that are considered damaging and really should be avoided in this day and age. I’m talking about the kind of tropes that disrespect or diminish the value of minorities. That isn’t to say you can’t write about certain topics, but know that if you only have one LGBT+ character in your novel and they end up getting killed it may not bode well (see Bury your Gays).
How to write something new
So, we have a common plot line with a common trope. How do we make this story new for the reader?
First, you need acceptance. We have to accept that we are all recycling older stories. Once you realise that every author is in the same boat, it becomes less of a failure on you to create something new and more of an accepted challenge that comes with the job itself.
Second, we have to realise that tropes aren’t bad. In fact, many readers of certain genres go into a book expecting to see certain tropes. Many YA fans, for instance, want to see a love triangle or a teenager overthrowing a corrupt government. Many romance readers want a happily ever after. And that is absolutely fine.
Third, we have to push ourselves. It isn’t easy to tell an old story in a new way, but what part of writing a story is? You need to examine your work carefully and identify your limitations and capabilities. You need to look at the story you want to tell and really ask yourself how you can make it unique.
So how can we do that? Here are four quick examples.
1. Add a twist
Even a small twist on a regular narrative is enough to grip a reader and make them forget that the basic building blocks are the same.
Let’s take the Chosen One trope. There are countless ways you can put a spin on this plot line. Perhaps the protagonist was really chosen by the antagonist rather than ‘fate’, a la Harry Potter. Or maybe we start out thinking it was meant to be but then we learn of the protagonist’s long-forgotten heritage that made them exactly the right person. It’s the same premise but with just enough twist to make it interesting.
2. Trick the reader
Tropes are often predictable – and a great writer can use this to their advantage. George RR Martin is a good example of this. Experienced readers and viewers of the Game of Thrones series have swiftly learned not to make assumptions about the happenings in Westeros because time after time, Martin has pulled the rug out from under us.
When it’s done right, tropes can lure readers into a false sense of security, giving you the perfect opportunity to surprise them.
3. Make it believable
More often than not, the reason so many tropes feel played out is because they simply aren’t believable. We’re introduced to the very plain-looking, slightly clumsy girl who for some reason is irresistible to every man in the book. Or we see a character with no discernible skills inexplicably become an excellent archer or battlefield specialist or riddle solver.
It’s fine to have a character who is adored or proficient at a particular skill, but if this isn’t set up early on it doesn’t sit right. It breaks our suspension of disbelief because we, the reader, want a better reason than simply ‘because the story needs them to be’.
4. Go meta
This one is more of a last resort because it has to be done in the right way, but sometimes highlighting a trope can take the pressure off its presence. Say, for example, we have our Chosen One picked out by a prophecy – having the protagonist point out the ridiculousness of this can go some way to alleviating…well, how ridiculous it is. It can become a sort of inside joke between the writer and the reader.
Now, I said at the start that this has to be done right because in the wrong context it can come off as a cop out. So don’t just have your characters break the fourth wall so you can justify a lazy trope.
The role of the author
We may not be able to create a brand new story anymore, but there is something that your story has which no other can have: you. The writer is what makes a story unique. No one else can tell the same story in the same way. From voice and point of view to scene choices and character development, every story you tell is entirely your own. Once we stop worrying about creating something new, we’ll realise that we’ve actually been doing it all along.