A trope is a literary device present in nearly all fiction. A trope can make or break a story. If done correctly, tropes can leave your readers grinning and giddy and satisfied. If done poorly, a trope can make your readers cringe. As you can imagine, tropes are extremely important. Understanding what they are and how to use them will get you far.
In this blog we will look at the definition of a trope, the different types of tropes, how they are used, and some books that have these tropes. This is by no means a comprehensive guide. There’s tons of info on the internet, so if you want to learn more, make sure you do digging of your own.
Okay, ready to get started?
Trope (Merriam-Webster definition):
a) A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.
b) A common or overused theme or device: cliché.
I would like to add my two-cents regarding definition b. I do not believe there is a such thing as an “overused” theme or devise in storytelling. There are a finite number of themes and devices in storytelling. They all get used, and they will forever be used until the end of time. Therefore, you can’t avoid using them. You just can’t. So there’s no such thing as “overusing.”
However, you CAN use them poorly, in which case, you might be accused of “overusing” them. But that’s just someone’s response to disliking the device/theme that went wrong. Done right, readers won’t say a thing. After all, a good story is a good story. No one walks away from a good story and says, “Man, I loved it, but I’m just so tired of the chosen-one-hero.” *Yes, the chosen-one is an example of a trope.* And chances are, they wouldn’t have even read the story if they didn’t like chosen-one stories to begin with.
Moving on. Let’s talk about the different types of tropes out there. There’s soooo many. A few of my favorites are: enemies-to-lovers, found-family, chosen-one, coming-into-one’s-own, fake-relationship, hidden-royalty, secret-powers, love-triangle. I could go on, but these are my tops. And after reading this short list, you probably already have an idea of what these are. The great thing about a trope is, its name gives it away.
For example: enemies-to-lovers—which is my favorite of all time—is a story that highlights two enemies who hate each other so much, but somehow fall in love with each other. This isn’t necessarily what the story is about, it’s simply an underlying theme within the main plot. Or maybe it is the plot, depending on how the author uses it.
You can be flexible here. Are your two characters truly enemies? Or maybe they simply work at the same company and are competing for the same promotion? The sky is the limit on what type of enemy they are. Literal or figurative. Or maybe they simply got off on the wrong foot and strongly dislike each other when they first meet. Like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice (my favorite enemies-to-lovers romance besides Beauty and the Beast). Eliza and Mr. Darcy are not true enemies, they simply misunderstood one another when they first met. Yet, they still fall into the enemies-to-lovers category. So you see, a good trope takes the idea and puts a fresh spin on it, adding something original. Hallmark movies frequently utilize the enemies-to-lovers trope so you can get tons of ideas there.
Now, a trope CAN go wrong.
The way you ruin enemies-to-lovers is by writing characters that aren’t convincing. Like poor character chemistry. You need to make both characters believable. Give them a full transformation. They don’t go from being enemies to being lovers overnight. Things happen in between. These middle events allow both characters to get to know each other. And slowly, ever so slowly, they start to understand each other. Somewhere along the way they stop hating each other. Maybe they still pretend to, which I always love. Then suddenly, they’re caught in the rain kissing (okay kissing in the rain is a little cliché on its own but if done right can still be satisfying…think Bridgerton). So make sure to do your trope justice.
Don’t go for just one trope if you can help it. Most stories use multiple tropes throughout. You might have a chosen-one trope about a person who is destined to save the world. But that person is working with someone who they view as an enemy. Somewhere along the way they fall in love with that enemy. So now you have a chosen-one trope and enemies-to-lovers, all in one. Maybe that enemy is secretly the ruler of another kingdom, forced into hiding. Well, then you also have the hidden-royalty trope too.
Wait, wait, wait…did I just craft the backbone for what sounds like an EPIC fantasy romance?! You bet I did! The great thing about tropes is they can be a fantastic way to get story ideas. You can play spin-the-bottle and grab a few tropes and craft an entire story with them. Hello building blocks!!!
Be excessive, but not too excessive. You can start layering trope after trope. But don’t overdo it. Pick three or four and focus on those. But more importantly, make sure you put a fresh spin on each of them. Flip a trope on its head. Try to add something into your trope you haven’t seen before.
The best way to write a good book is to pick popular tropes and USE THEM. When you look through best-selling books across YA and Adult Fiction genres, you will find that ALL OF THEM have taken advantage of a popular trope. Why? Because these are tried-and-true story devices/themes that people enjoy and will continue to enjoy.
Since romance tropes tend to be my favorite, I’m going to list out all the ones I know of from lists I’ve seen on the internet:
1) Love triangle.
An example of this is Throne of Glass (book 1) with Celaena, Chaol, and Dorian. I actually LOVE a good love triangle if done right. By right, I mean the MC gets with BOTH interests at one point or another, but the one ultimately abandoned doesn’t end up with a broken heart, because I hate broken hearts. Broken hearts leave me feeling icky and sad. I don’t read books to feel sad.
2) Billionaire or Secret billionaire.
Fifty Shades of Gray is the one that comes to mind. This type of story is super popular in the Kindle Unlimited world. I haven’t read much on this one.
3) Friends to Lovers.
Ick, I’m not a huge fan of this one. BUT occasionally it can be done right. An example would be Mal and Alina from Shadow and Bone series (which is a Netflix show now!). Some people love this type of trope. That’s the thing about tropes, they are really based on personal preferences. And friends to lovers stories sell really well.
4) Stuck Together.
Okay, I adore stuck together tropes. Who doesn’t enjoy the love interest forced to be sequestered or stranded together on a desert island?! A good example of this is Bryce and Hunt in Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood. Hunt gets assigned to help Bryce solve a case and guard and protect her. Thus, they must spend most of their waking moments together. They are also mostly enemies at first based on a misunderstanding of each other’s character. So you have two tropes in Crescent City that take front-center. But because they are stuck together, they are forced to get to know each other and tensions are high.
Okay I probably have more examples for this one than any other. A Court of Thorns and Roses would be my favorite. Also A Deal with the Elf King, Rowan and Aelin from Heir of Fire, The Hollow Kingdom. There’s just so many. I believe this is the most popular trope in the romance world and it SELLS. It sells a lot! Use it!
6) Second chance.
Meh, I’m pretty blah about second chance. A good example of second chance is These Violent Delights. That one didn’t get a high rating from me. Most of the romance happened on the first chance. So the second chance was kind of boring for me. But that’s probably just because I’m not a huge fan of this trope.
7) Soul Mates.
Okay I’ve noticed there are two types of soul mates tropes. The insta-love ones (barf) or the ones that employ other tropes like stuck-together and enemies-to-lovers. If it’s the second one, I’m all for it. I love a good mates story. Why? Because you know that no matter how much they fight each other, eventually they will be stuck together for life. So they’d better work out their differences. Two good stories for this are A Court of Thorns and Roses and Throne of Glass series. I also employ soul mates in my Dragonwall Series + enemies-to-lovers.
8) Fake relationship.
YESSS! Love this one too. Best example is Bridgerton (The Duke and I). Fake relationship is similar to stuck-together because usually the two characters involved are pretending that they are dating or married or whatever. So they must pretend to like each other and that forces them to be around each other more than they would normally. Kind of sticks them together. Eventually they realize that somewhere along the way their fake relationship turned into a real relationship. Another good book example is The Shadows Between Us.
9) Forbidden Love.
Ohhhh there’s something so delicious about being told ‘no’ and that’s what forbidden love stems from. Romeo and Juliet is a good forbidden love because they are not allowed to love each other. Beasts of the Frozen sun was a good example of this. The MC falls in love with a man from an enemy country and her village punishes her for it.
Okay, okay. So what about non-romance tropes? Come on, Melissa, not EVERYONE wants gobs and gobs of romance like you. All right, all right. Let’s look at a few others based specifically in the fantasy genre:
1) The chosen one.
This one is probably the most popular because of Harry Potter. Anything that uses a prophesy to cast the MC as THE ONE is usually using a chosen-one trope. It’s a little “overplayed” but we still love it. Just do it right and you’re going to be fine. To do it right, add your own spin. Don’t have a prophesy unless absolutely necessary. Maybe the person becomes the chosen one simply because they become the strongest most capable person. Or maybe something about them, like a unique characteristic that others find boring, makes them an ideal candidate. I use the chosen-one with Claire in the Dragonwall Series. And it turned out a little cliché. But…oh well.
2) Secret Heir.
Heck yes! I love a secret heir. This is basically a hidden-royalty trope. Either they don’t know they are the heir, or they do but have been hiding it from everyone. Throne of Glass is a good book example here.
3) Powerful Artifact.
Oooohhh who doesn’t love a secret mysterious device that gets discovered and is the answer to everything. Magical object maybe? An example would be from the Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks. Or the philosophers stone in A Golden Fury and/or Harry Potter. In fact, all of the Harry Potter books are riddled with powerful-artifact tropes.
4) The Quest.
Dun dun dun. How many quest stories have you read? Probably tons. We love a good adventure quest. Lord of the Rings is a GREAT quest story. Think of the hobbits at the meeting in Rivendell when they say to Elrond, “You need people of intelligence on this sort of…quest.” Okay I was paraphrasing there cause I’m too lazy to look up word for word what was said.
I’m sure if I did enough research, I could probably list out hundreds of tropes. Some more popular than others.
Next time you sit down to read a book, think about the devices it uses. Tropes can apply to characters, themes, and plots. Sky’s the limit. Use the internet because you will find TONS of advice, examples, and suggestions for utilizing tropes in writing.
Feel free to drop your favorite tropes and book trope recs in the comments on this thread here.