Any experienced consumer of media will know tropes are a thing, especially in speculative fiction. And while I think they serve a very specific purpose, I think they can sometimes be seen as a bad thing. I’m sure you’ve heard of books or movies described as too ‘tropey’. I think there are certainly valid reasons for why one would want to be wary of using too many tropes, but do they deserve the sort of bad reputation they seem to have?
The Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche
While I’ll be the first to admit that the difference is a delicate one, the two are not interchangeable terms, and I think confusing a trope with a cliche is part of what gives them such a bad rap.
A trope is a type of story element or plot device, usually common enough that we can single them out. The love triangle, for example, or the absent parents in YA. These are tropes – recurring elements of literature.
A cliche, however, is the overuse of a trope with no meaningful addition or originality. It’s viewed as bad because it is considered lazy and makes a story predictable. Cliches are typically used to the point of oversaturation, and their inclusion can turn people off rather than interest them.
The Importance of Categories
We like to categorize things. It’s part of our nature. It helps us to organize our world and understand things better. By matching things up, and seeing what they have in common we can intuit certain things about them. We learn by categorizing. It’s why a good metaphor can be so powerful. By comparing something to other similar things we can paint a picture or explain something foreign in a way that can be understood. It’s an important element of fiction, and powerful when used correctly.
The same goes for tropes. You can tell the difference between a mystery story and a young adult romance by the sorts of tropes you find. And when a story surprised you it’s because it made you think it was one thing, when it was really something else. You had expectations because of categories that already existed, and a good story leads you down a path and then surprises you with something you didn’t expect.
But Are They Bad?
In essence, no, not really. As I mentioned previously, tropes are an extension of our human need to categorize. When story elements show up often enough that they can be categorized, they become a trope. For some, too many tropes can make the experience feel dull or repetitive. For others, they love reading or watching something that HAS those tropes, whether one or many. That being said, there are at least a couple of reasons I can point to that paint a trope negatively, and they are predictability and unoriginality.
When employing the use of a trope you run the risk of a story becoming predictable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can definitely ruin the tension or immersion if you already know what’s going to happen. Of course, some people like being able to figure it out ahead of time or they find it a less stressful, more entertaining experience. I think something predictable can still have good qualities and be a fun story, though it is unlikely to stand out as remarkable.
Failure to Innovate
I think where the most criticism comes from is that the use of a trope can be a sign that the creator behind it was too lazy to think of a creative solution or just didn’t spend the time to craft something original. Instead, they used a tried and true trope, but it’s not holding up. If the entire story is full of tropes with no attempt to twist them or subvert expectations, the result is a dull story.
In the end, when used poorly, tropes can drag a story down. Make it slow, bland, repetitive and unoriginal. There is nothing inherently wrong with them – they exist as a way of categorizing and understanding the stories we consume, and they can be used to great effect. I mentioned a few such examples when I gave a list of five of my favourite tropes if you’re interested.
Or you could simply think of some of your favourite stories. Why were they your favourites? What did they do to surprise you?
What is your opinion of tropes? Do you have any favourites? Any you dislike? Let me know down below!