Literary Trope Examples (Also, What’s a Trope?)
The other night, my husband and I were watching a TV show in which a character who was about to embark on a dangerous mission started talking about his very wholesome plans for the future.
My husband immediately said, “Uh-oh.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “He’s gonna die.”
We knew this because we’ve seen it a million times. You probably have, too. To make a character’s death more emotionally impactful, the writer gets the audience to imagine the bright future that person deserved.
It’s a mechanism used repeatedly in storytelling. That is to say, it’s a trope.
Tropes are a sort of storytelling shorthand. They’re devices authors use to spark an emotional response, create an immediate association, or add layers to a story without having to explain the heck out of everything.
From a writing perspective, literary tropes are your friend… to an extent. The trick is to know how to use them without making your story too predictable or veering into the world of clichés.
To do that, you’ll need to know what a literary trope is, what it isn’t, and how to use it artfully. You’ll also need an absolute boatload of examples.
Lucky you, all that information is right here in this article.
What Are Literary Tropes?
The criminal who’s trying to go straight but gets roped into doing “one last job” is a trope. So is that thing where a shy character removes her glasses, inadvertently revealing her hidden beauty.
Even phrases like “I was born ready” and “she was a ray of sunshine” count as tropes.
A trope can be something as big as a familiar story structure and as small as a common figure of speech.
How is That Different from a Cliché?
A cliché is a trope that’s been used so many times it no longer makes any kind of emotional impact.
The first time a character said, “Is that all you got?” during a fight, it probably sounded super tough. By now, we’ve all heard it so many times that it no longer feels so tenacious. It just kinda sounds like that character is parroting something they heard in a movie.
What About Archetypes?
There’s a fine line between literary tropes and archetypes. While both relate to repeated patterns seen across literature, I think the simplest distinction is this:
Archetypes tend to go deeper and invite more exploration, whereas tropes rely on clear, concrete details to quickly communicate an idea or experience.
For example, the Mean Girl is a trope. She’s defined by external things like popularity earned through beauty and wealth, hurtful dialogue, and devoted girlfriends who imitate her even as they suffer her abuse.
But an archetype digs into the emotional and psychological explanations for who this person is.
Could the Mean Girl be an Orphan who’s learned to look out for herself to survive? Is she a Magician corrupted by her own power? A Seducer who maintains her power by turning on the charm for her high-status peers?
Archetypes also tend to reflect universally familiar patterns, while tropes can be specific to a culture or even genre. You can learn more about character archetypes in this article.
What’s the Purpose of a Trope?
Now that you know what a trope is and isn’t, what’s the point? How are you supposed to use this information to improve your writing?
There are two main benefits of using common tropes. One is that they offer a shortcut, helping the reader instantly recognize and understand the dynamics within your novel.
For example, demonstrating a character’s loneliness by showing them in a messy apartment with pizza boxes on the floor and moldy dishes stacked in the sink is a popular trope. But it’s a popular trope because that mess is a quick way to suggest that 1) no one visits, 2) this person isn’t accountable to anyone, and 3) they’re not even fully showing up for themselves.
That’s a lot of things your reader immediately understands without the need for a ton of explanation.
The other benefit of tropes is that they can signal to a reader that this is their kind of story. This is particularly true in genre fiction, where readers might gravitate towards tropes like a friends-to-lovers romance novel or a Reluctant Hero fantasy.
So Tropes are Good, Then?
Yes, but sometimes no.
As I mentioned before, overused tropes can become clichés, at which point they lose their impact and make the story painfully predictable.
There are also lazy tropes that perpetuate stereotypes and drain the humanity right out of your narrative.
One exhaustingly common trope is the one wise and/or magical person of color who helps the white protagonist achieve their goal and has no inner life of their own.
Or that thing where the romantic heroine is daring enough to love burgers, while her shallow adversary eats salad and counts calories, and we’re supposed to hate her for it instead of reflecting on the fact that the actors playing these characters both have to eat like that to maintain bodies considered suitable for our TV screens.
The important thing to know is that you can’t avoid tropes altogether. They’re simply too prevalent, too useful, and too beloved. The trick is learning how to make them your own.
When you pick up a gritty crime novel, you know the protagonist is probably a cynical detective who’d rather fight the bad guys of the world than confront their own demons. That’s a character trope, and it’s a beloved fixture of the genre.
Here are a few more examples of common character tropes:
Common Character Tropes
The Chosen One - This character is destined to complete a specific mission due to their unique strengths. You see it most often (but not exclusively) in the fantasy genre and it includes characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.
The Nice Guy - This is the deep, sensitive love interest who might not be as cool as their romantic rivals but supposedly “deserves” to land their crush because they’re so nice.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl - She has no inner life but brings her brooding love interest back to life with her quirkiness. Her interests include wearing headphones, dyeing her hair unnatural colors, and dancing in unconventional settings.
The Wise Old Mentor - If the Old Mentor is a man—and he often is—he probably has a long beard. This character guides the protagonist and may or may not be magical.
Authors also use tropes to clue readers in on the type of story they’re telling.
Let’s say you write a mystery where the first scene shows several different characters arriving at a boutique ski resort only to learn that an unexpected blizzard is going to snow them in.
Your readers will instantly realize that this is the type of mystery where there will be multiple murders in a location where there is no escape and everybody is a suspect.
More importantly, if they love that kind of mystery, they’ll know this book is for them.
Common Plot Tropes
The Hero’s Journey - The Hero’s Journey is actually a pretty involved story structure, and you can learn about it here. It’s also an approach to storytelling we’ve seen so many times, we can predict the formula without thinking about it. The hero(ine) leaves home, faces challenges in unfamiliar circumstances, and returns forever changed.
Love Triangle - This is when two characters are both crushing on the same person. The object of their affection might struggle to choose between them or they might return only one person’s affections. Lots of tension either way.
Ticking Clock - In a Ticking Clock situation, readers are made aware that something catastrophic is going to happen if the protagonist fails to reach their goal by a specific deadline. This is a popular trope because it’s an instant suspense builder.
Enemies to Lovers - When two pretty people hate each other at the beginning of a romance novel, you can bet they’ll fall in love by the end.
Different genres come with specific tropes that readers will gleefully debate and discuss in forums, conferences, and panels.
Whatever category your books fall under, make sure you know the corresponding tropes. You don’t have to use them all, but you want to know what your target audience loves… and which genre conventions they’re honestly a little sick of.
Let’s go over some examples of tropes that you’re likely to see in specific genres.
Common Tropes by Genre
There’s Only One (Romance) - One room, one bed, one elevator, one desk, one taxi… it can be one of anything as long as it forces the love interests to share space and get to know each other better.
Cabot Cove Syndrome (Mystery) - This applies to mystery series in which a tiny community seems to have a big murder problem. It’s named after the 3,500-person town in Murder She Wrote that sees 274 murders over the course of the series.
Taverns (Fantasy) - This setting leans into the ancient-and-rustic vibe many fantasies have going on and allows the protagonist to encounter mysterious travelers. It’s also a good place to sing some old Dwarvish drinking songs, I assume.
Dystopian Future (Sci-fi) - Science fiction asks big questions about societal structures, political power, and the consequences of technology. So it’s hardly a shocker that many sci-fi novels explore the possibilities of a dystopian future.
Cursed Object (Horror) - It might be an ancient idol, antique doll, or old VHS tape. Whatever it is, messing with it is a guaranteed way to conjure demons, summon monsters, or tick off the guy with the chainsaw.
Tropes don’t just appear in the elements that make up our stories. The way you tell a story can also be a trope.
In our writing, we use tons of recurring methods for establishing timelines, indicating tone, demonstrating character growth, and more.
Here are a few examples to clarify what I mean:
Common Storytelling Tropes
Foreshadowing - Foreshadowing is a tension-building trope in which you hint at exciting events to come.
Transformation Montage - This is when a screenwriter fast-forwards through a section of a character’s growth journey by showing a quick series of scenes in which they attempt to better themselves. Rocky’s training montage is a famous example of this.
Changing Seasons - In this storytelling trope, the writer indicates the passage of time by briefly describing the change in weather.
Avoiding Overused Tropes
After seeing all these examples of tropes, you might start noticing tropes everywhere. You might realize how often you run into the same trope. And you might start to wonder how on earth you can avoid overusing these devices when “overused” seems to be their defining feature.
There’s no simple rule to this, largely because it’s impossible to get mass consensus on whether a particular trope has run its course. All you can really do is ask yourself the following questions:
- Are readers of my genre still embracing this trope?
- Is this the most emotionally compelling way to present this information? Or would a more original approach work better?
- Will this make it easy for readers to guess a twist or plot point that I’d rather surprise them with?
- Do I love this trope?
When in doubt, you can always try subverting tropes.
When you subvert a trope, you present readers with something familiar then add an unexpected twist.
For example, the elderly sleuth trope is popular in cozy mysteries. Basically, a grandmotherly type with sharp observational skills is surprisingly good at solving murders. The Thursday Murder Club series subverts this trope with an elderly sleuth who’s not an adorable grandmother, kindly aunt, or avid knitter; she’s a former spy who’s killed a few people herself.
And that’s really all it takes to subvert a trope. Take something overdone and give it a twist that makes it brand new.
Reveal that the purple-haired Dream Girl with the big headphones is a third-year law student who saves the brooding Nice Guy by recommending a good therapist. Write a montage in which the protagonist only gets worse at something.
Of course, subverting isn’t always the best choice. Ask yourself what your story needs and keep an eye on what your readers care about. In fact, when you do decide to give an old trope a new twist, it’s a good call to get beta reader feedback on it.
Time to Get Tropin’!
The only thing left to do is experiment with tropes in your own writing. Embrace them, subvert them, trade them out for something brand new… it’s entirely up to you and your story.
And if you could use a little more guidance on writing a novel that satisfies reader expectations while presenting something entirely original, I highly recommend checking out the hundreds of free articles available in DabbleU.
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