Tropes: A Thread by Jeni Chappelle | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle

I’m seeing a lot of talk about tropes in books (again), and I’ve been staying out of it. But I can’t anymore.

Let’s start with this: saying a book having tropes means it’s bad is not only insulting to readers and writers–it also shows a fundamental lack of understanding about tropes, what they are, and how they function in stories.

There is no such thing as “stories with tropes” and “stories without tropes.” ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. Stories without tropes simply do not exist.

Tropes =/= clichés. Yes, some tropes can ALSO be clichés. But tropes in and of themselves are not cliché. And whether you like it or not, tropes serve a really important function in novels. EVERY novel.

Authors who are bashing the use of tropes 1) don’t understand that function and 2) ARE ALSO USING TROPES. They just don’t realize it, which is legit the worst way to use tropes. Smart authors ✨ recognize tropes and use them with intent to inform the reader’s experience.

When I say “smart authors,” I do NOT mean every author needs to pay a teacher or editor in order to understand. I mean authors who understand the form and function, whether that’s through their own pattern recognition, experience, or hardcore studying.

So lemme walk you through a reader’s experience with tropes with this example: You see a book and think, “oooh, I love that title, and that cover is AMAZE.” Title = using tropes. Cover = using tropes.

You read the back cover blurb. It catches your attention by explaining how the story fits into its genre and age category and also how it’s bringing something that feels like you haven’t seen it before. Guess what. You got it. Tropes, tropes, tropes.

You read the first couple pages to see if you like the voice, POV, and writer’s style. In those couple pages, you are checking out the character, setting, actions, reactions–and (possibly unconsciously) consuming tropes about them all.

If you, the reader, like what you see (and have the means), you will buy the book. If something in one of these elements doesn’t connect with you, you probably won’t buy the book. From a market standpoint, that is the function of tropes.

Tropes tell the reader “hey, this is what this story is about,” and the reader’s brain goes, “oh, right, I have read/seen stories similar in X way, but this story seems a little different in Y way” and then decides whether you like that or not.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. For the reader who continues w that story, tropes act as kind of streetlights. The help the reader keep moving down the path of the story, alternating between “oh, right, I have seen this in other stories” & “this is different from what other stories did”.

That means every story is giving the reader both 1) what they expect, based on the genre and age category and 2) something that is directly from the author’s own spin on these tropes.

So, yes, literally every piece of writing does this (nonfiction too!). It’s been said that there is no truly original story, and this is why. Every story intentionally or unintentionally stands upon the shoulders of others.

YA – tropes. Romance – tropes. General fiction – tropes. Lit fic – tropes. Classic literature – TROPES. You get the idea.

So any author or reader saying talking bad about “books with tropes” is fundamentally missing the point. It’s not whether tropes are good or bad. Tropes are neutral. They just exist.

How the author uses tropes and how that impacts the reader is what makes the difference between books that trope successfully and those that don’t. And that “success” is often VERY subjective, depending on whether the reader likes the author’s take.

In terms of trad pub, tropes go in cycles, and when they come back around, they are slightly different than the previous cycle was. In terms of self-pub, books that have good sales prove that readers LIKE when they can recognize tropes.

So don’t strive not to use tropes at all, dear #WritingCommunity. That is putting your amazing brain to an impossible task. Instead, strive to understand how tropes are used and how you use them in your own writing. That is where the power really is.

Yeah, the reason I couldn’t stay out of it is I have tropes on the brain more than usual–check out my new tropes class with @FromCarly.

If you like this thread and want to know more, we will be going into all this but way deeper!

Read the original Twitter thread along with comments here.

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Chappelle Editorial

About the author

Jeni Chappelle a freelance novel editor with more than twelve years of editing experience and a lifetime of word nerdiness. In her editing, she uses her own internal conflict between logic and creativity to help authors shape their stories and bring their books out into the world. She has edited a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction in all age groups and had the pleasure of working with thousands of authors from all over the world, including bestselling and award-winning authors.

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