Monday, September 26, 2016

Enough Trope To Hang Yourself

Tropes have gotten a bad rap over time. They've been linked as a synonym to the dreaded "cliché".

But Merriam-Webster actually defines trope as "a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect". (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

And that's the definition I prefer.

The romance genre definitely has its share of tropes, motifs, and clichés. To begin with, in order to be a romance novel, the story must have not only a love through-line within the text but also the proper ending--either a happy-for-now or even better, a happy-ever-after. A prerequisite is not uncommon in genre fiction. For example, who would read a mystery if there wasn't the expectation of it being solved by the end? Could you even call it part of the mystery genre if the killer is never caught or the wrong-doer never uncovered? A mystery reader expects a certain ending, just like a romance reader does.

Some other popular tropes in the romance genre include the secret baby, the marriage of convenience, friends (or enemies) to lovers, opposites attract, the fake fiancé, the brother's best friend, a fish out of water, and even the second chance at love.

But why do we return again and again, seeking out new and different stories to attach to these age old story motifs? Here are my theories:
  1. We can relate to them. Accidental pregnancies do occur. Friends sometimes become lovers (I married mine after knowing him 20 years). Occasionally our brother has a really good-looking friend. And almost everyone has been in a situation where they felt uncomfortably unprepared or like a fish out of water. We know these stories. We've often lived these stories. We read about them to feel a kinship with characters going through the same situation.
  2. They come with built-in conflict. Every writer knows conflict is a basic building block of story.  Trope conflicts usually have a bit of a gossipy, reality show feel to them, appealing to a reader's sense of voyeurism. Will the marriage of convenience end in divorce? How can a couple get past the obstacle that caused them to break up a decade earlier and take their second chance? What will the hero do when he suddenly finds out he's a father? How will the brother react when he finds out his best friend is dating his sibling? With built in angst and situations poised for disaster, readers want to see how the writer resolves them as well as get a dirty little secret thrill at peeking into an intimate, closed-door relationship that isn't normally exposed in real life.
  3. They allow for character growth. One thing tropes do well is give us characters that have to overcome something. Accidental pregnancy stories can be tragedies (not love stories) if parents don't rise to the responsibility of parenting. A fish out of water story becomes a harsh lesson unless the character is willing to step out of their comfort zone and learn what they need to know to succeed. Opposites attract stories become break-up stories unless both sides learn to compromise and make a relationship work. Readers want a character to change and grow in a story. Satisfying trope endings force that growth.
Because tropes are familiar to readers, when a writer uses a trope to construct fiction, it's almost like entering into a contract. Readers expect the writer to provide them with a story they already know but resolve it in a unique and different manner. Because each trope has been used countless times before, it's a task that's not easy for the writer to do.

But I'm going to try it. I've got an alien same-sex secret baby story that is dying to be written. I think the alien and the same-sex aspects will set my story apart enough from others written using the secret baby trope. Keep your fingers crossed for me that I can pull it off.

So tell me--what is your favorite trope and what new and different story would you like to see using it?