What is a Trope?
There are a lot of words that get thrown around when we talk about storytelling so let’s look at a common definition for a trope.
A trope [is] a convention or device that establishes a predictable or stereotypical representation of a character, setting, or scenario in creative work. 
Let’s simplify that further into: a trope establishes a predictable character, setting, or scenario.
We will examine how to use tropes when we first draft a story and when we’re revising.
As a lifelong reader, my discovery of the power of tropes has been gradual. I read these favorites repeatedly, but that wasn’t enough to figure out how these authors used tropes.
I purchased physical copies, marking them up with what interested me. Notes about characters, conflicts, and secondary characters flowed onto pages of my notebooks.
The most crucial question was how the authors created stories that sucked me in? Yes, I loved the characters, conflicts, emotions, and world building but how evaded me. What was the magic that made me want to immediately cancel all aspects of my regular life to stay in that story world?
If there was ever a secret sauce recipe, I craved this one. I studied my lists, outlines, and diagrams for what these stories shared. And I filled several notebooks with the information. All the time, I pulled at the commonalities in the stories.
That was what interested me—their common threads.
And that’s how I stumbled upon tropes.
Discovering the power of tropes was a gradual process for me.
Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, published in 2003, is a 350 plus page fantasy novel that spawned one mediocre Hollywood movie and, more recently, a better received BBC limited series. The Golden Compass is the first in His Dark Materials trilogy.
I’ll talk about the first book here. I first read this book almost twenty years ago, and I loved it so much, I still reread it about once a year.
When I first read it, my writing was the equivalent of wandering in the desert. I had no idea how to get from the beginning to the end when I created a story. I had plenty of ideas, but everything dwindled about 40% into the work.
It can be inspiring and demoralizing to read a great storyteller as a young writer.
But I kept reading, thinking, and writing. I filled many notebooks, but I was learning to think about storytelling. This was a slow process for me though I enjoyed it.
After the second read-through of The Golden Compass, I sat looking at the cover. I loved the story even more.
But the writer side of me was depressed. The author Phillip Pullman was a genius. I was not.
But having a stubborn nature, I picked up the book for the third time and reread it.
Instead of getting carried away with the story (which still happened sometimes), I began to take notes. I marked up the margins with notes and underlined many passages. I studied what was happening, to whom, and how it was happening.
If you haven’t read it, here’s my quick summary of The Golden Compass. The protagonist, Lyra, is an orphan living in an Oxford college as a favor to her powerful and often absent uncle. Lyra is smart, willful, and selfish. She’s left to amuse herself and terrorize her teachers. She applies herself to both tasks thoroughly. The story involves searching for her best friend, one of the latest area children to be kidnapped. The other part of Lyra’s story is a journey to the Arctic about the origin of a magical substance (MacGuffin). These two stories soon intertwine, involving magic, politics, and betrayal.
Lyra departs on a road trip to find her friend. She encounters a mysterious lady (later revealed to be her mother) and her often absent uncle (later revealed to be her father). She is a secret heir to a powerful object. During her adventures, she acquires a protector who happens to be an armored polar bear.
I set my pen down, somewhat stunned as I listed the familiar storytelling ideas. I had written down; orphan, best friend, kidnapped, road trip, hidden identity, secret baby, protector, politics, violence, lost heir, MacGuffin.
I didn’t know then that these were tropes. I only knew these were common ideas. I’d heard most of them in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I loved as a child.
Yet somehow, Philip Pullman had taken these conventions to create a fresh story world that I didn’t want to leave.
How did he do that? I didn’t get it.
I didn’t yet understand then that these familiar conventions were tropes.
And I was puzzled for years about how these common concepts were in a unique and intriguing story world.
In the meantime, every time I watched a movie or read a book, I started studying the common concepts I could pick out.
I still thought tropes were tricks lazy writers used in my guilty pleasure-- General Hospital.
I only equated tropes with stereotypes and cliches.
Were they all the same, though?
I kept digging (i.e., watching and reading).
I gradually realized that tropes, stereotypes, and cliches generally mean commonly understood ideas, but they were not used in the same way.
A stereotype or cliché (I’m considering them the same for our purposes) has little to no manipulation in the storyline, lacking details. Take, for example, the spoiled little rich girl. Nothing is intriguing about that idea as far as the character development goes. We’ve seen it a million times before.
But if we took that same spoiled little rich girl idea and gave her goals, motivation, and conflict while developing her character details, it becomes Legally Blonde.
I stopped thinking of tropes as end products and started thinking of them as raw materials that could create characters and increase conflict.
The answer was in the twist.
What if we were able to use the reader’s familiarity with tropes like a springboard to take us to more intriguing storytelling heights?
Let’s look at another example. Sierra is a younger woman married to a wealthy older man. She’s in love with Cliff, a young man full of ambition but short of material possessions. Sierra and Cliff have a secret relationship. Sierra becomes pregnant; the father is Cliff. Sierra chooses to give up the baby to retain the security of her marriage. End of story, right?
This is a pretty standard secret baby setup based on your genre tastes and what else is happening with the characters and conflicts. Some might even call it a cliché because there’s no twist or surprise here.
Yet this is the exact basic secret baby storyline in The Golden Compass (albeit with different names). It took me forever to realize The Golden Compass contained a secret baby trope.
How could I have missed this major source of conflict? What made this book a thrilling read while the secret baby trope on its own is fairly standard?
The answer was more than just adding a trope in a story. It was how that concept was applied.
I needed to dig deeper into how to craft a story.
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