Story vs. Tropes

In a lot of circles of discussion, reviews and writing advice, there’s an intense awareness of tropes. Hardly a story goes by without some accusation of a trope being thrown at it: “Mary Sue,” “fridging,” “the chosen one,” etc.

Tropes are generally an indication that a story element or character has been used before, frequently enough to have been codified into a common set of signals. Whether by coincidence or deliberately drawing on archetypes of other stories, tropes are carried from story to story until they become trite and overused into cliché.

But if you set out to write a story without any tropes, you’ll find your path much harder than you might expect.

I’m not saying there isn’t an original story out there to be found, and plenty of writers able to find it. But I am not one of them; at least, not enough to avoid all tropes.

As you’re developing your story, pulling on the depths of your own subconscious to create a new thing from scratch, you might realize that the new thought you just had for your character’s backstory… is a trope. Or that the plot point you need to maneuver them to the climax… is a trope. And pretty soon everywhere you turn, no matter how hard you look, is either a trope—or not a good story.

There is a reason that tropes are so common. I’ve struggled with trying to develop protagonist backstories without falling into tropes of the “tragic backstory”—but there is a reason that’s a trope. A tragic backstory provides depth and motivation and emotional weight to a character, where a simple happy backstory provides no conflict, no motivation. Is it cliché to fridge the parents so that your tragic orphan can rise to the challenge? Yes, and if you can think of a new story, you should.

But if you can’t, or if you love the story in hand even when it’s familiar, then you should write it anyway. I’ve made the mistake many times of letting the “trope police” voice in my head grow too loud—maybe ignoring it might mean I get some snarky reviews (if I get published at all), but listening to it has only meant rejecting story after story, and stifling the ones that survive.

Tropes aren’t inherently bad—they are a part of our culture and our favorite stories for a reason. Don’t let trying to be original force you to be nothing.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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