Learning from Studying Tropes

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you know that tropes are Bad. If you’re new to writing, you may have been told your work relies too much on tropes and you need to be more original. The problem with tropes is that they’re proven story mechanics, and as a result, they get used. A lot. Sometimes too much. As a result, writers are often encouraged to edit them completely out of a story. But occasionally, we’re encouraged to find a way to use them purposefully…and the purpose can’t be, “I couldn’t think of another way to do this.” Just so we’re all clear on that.

Finding a different way to use a trope is actually where I was headed last fall when I was working on my (still in progress) short story “Empowered”. I was, for the first time in my life, watching a lot of superhero movies in addition to my normal action movies, and I was trying to figure out why there are so few stories centered around girls (I know. I’m not the only one wondering this.) and why I’m so reluctant to watch those that do.

I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and what I finally realized was that what I most hated about these stories could be boiled down to a handful of questions. As I started to explore the questions and my feelings about them, I realized I was railing against the tropes so often utilized in these stories. Using my own questions and what I was learning about these tropes, I started shaping a story to both look at and challenge my own perception of those tropes. It’s such a deep experience that I’m still working on the story a year later, taking long breaks in between rounds to just process.

That’s the thing with tropes. They’re routine, expected. But they have the ability to get us thinking about what makes them so routine and expected, and in that find a way to make them into something interesting. We can use them to explore our own reactions to the trope, to explore how the trope came to be, maybe even to look at the historical contexts where the trope really seemed to gain ground (as many of these tropes date back to the days of oral tradition).

They also have the ability to help us get unstuck in our writing: Am I leaning on a trope? How am I using it? How could I change it or move away from it? Surfing TV Tropes (do not click unless you have the next few days free) is a great way to find a spark that you can then twist and weave into your story. (The real challenge is not twisting it into something else that already exists.) You can take two or more tropes and mash them together, looking for unusual ways to put them together. You can pick a trope (be sure to study it carefully) and write its opposite, or write in the space between the trope and its opposite trope. It doesn’t matter why you hit up tropes; they can be powerful prompts that gets you thinking.

If you’re between projects or just completely stuck and need to walk away, trope surfing can make for an excellent writing practice. Write the trope. Write a satire of the trope. Write an essay on how the trope appears through books, movies, and television shows you enjoy watching, on how other writers have utilized the trope. It’s a valuable learning experience.