The Taming of the Trope

Have you noticed how the same ideas crop up in a lot of stories? Investigators racing against the clock to catch a criminal before they strike again, the ordinary person becoming a sleuth after no-one takes their theory seriously, the distracted author throwing screwed-up sheets of paper at a bin…

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What is a trope?

Commonly recurring literary devices – or tropes – are to be found everywhere, and with good reason. Used well, they enhance our reading experience. I may include a trope to two in the outline for my next book.

Some are time-savers, things that happen to the right person at the right time. The character who just happens to have a friend with the rare expertise needed to understand the significance of an obscure clue. Or the unusual event that just happens to remind a character of a small detail that turns out to be vitally important. In real life, the process of solving the case would probably be long and tedious – and nobody would want to read it.

Other tropes are there to help us understand the characters’ motivations. The deadline example gives us a sense of urgency. The character who is ignored makes us impatient to find out if their theory is correct. We know why the characters are doing what they are doing because we feel what they feel.

Some tropes have become recurring themes because they happen a lot in real life. These can make a story feel realistic even if some of the elements are fantastical. Being called into the boss’s office is something we can easily imagine, even if that office is on the other side of the universe.

Others are more interesting ways of describing things that happen in real life. Pressing a delete key is ordinary; throwing screwed-up sheets of paper at a bin is dramatic. Finding ‘irrefutable evidence’ sounds procedural.

Finding ‘a smoking gun’ sounds simultaneously exciting and scary.

Then there are the things that don’t happen in real life at all but we wish they would. The person whose life is falling apart, who retreats to their home town where a brilliant opportunity awaits along with their soulmate. This kind of trope is unrealistic but that really doesn’t matter because we want to believe it is possible. 

You may roll your eyes at this type of contrivance but children’s books and romances use them a lot, and that’s a big part of what makes them so popular.

What all these kinds of tropes have in common is the familiarity they provide. When you are feeling comfortable with where one thread of a story is going, you are open to surprises in another. You don’t feel bewildered by all the change. When a major shift occurs, it’s comforting to have something familiar to hold onto.

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