Ever been to TVTropes? It’s a website famous for defining the cliches and stereotypes that have been the ruin of many a TV series. For that reason, many people avoid tropes at all costs—especially in the world of literature. But dig deeper and you’ll find out there’s more to this word “tropes” than it might seem.
Genre tropes like mystery tropes and thriller tropes can be a rich source of inspiration. And a more literal definition of tropes as literary devices can help you spruce up your writing. Here are two definitions for tropes that you can immediately put to use in your work.
What Is a Trope?
Let’s focus on literary tropes first, rather than genre tropes.
In literature, a trope is any use of figurative language to substitute for a more literal concept. It comes from the Greek word tropos, which refers to any change of direction.
In short, the use of tropes is kind of a big deal in literary and genre works. A simple metaphor, like “she’s as brave as a lion,” serves as an example. The she in question might not literally have the same ravenous sort of bravery a lion might—but we get the idea.
Fortunately, tropes can be far more sophisticated and complex than that. Here’s what you’ll need to know.
Examples of Literary Tropes
Brutus is an honorable man.
-Marc Antony’s speech, William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
In the above example, William Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to great effect. Brutus turned his back on his political ally; if anything, we know Marc Antony doesn’t regard Brutus as honorable.
Substituting Antony’s literal meaning for a lighter, figurative meaning has an intensifying effect on the language: the audience now feels the anger behind Antony’s words.
Here are some other examples you can use:
A metaphor is a simple comparison—only you’ll skip using “like” or “as” to make the comparison obvious.
“She has the heart of a lion” is the example we used above. While everyone should understand a metaphor doesn’t have a literal meaning, substituting figurative language for comparison’s sake should help people get the hint.
Deliberately over-exaggerated language is a favorite literary trope of children. “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse” is a good example. The over-exaggeration should highlight the intensity of what you want to get across without diluting the message.
As with William Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, dramatic irony often employs the use of opposite meanings to create an effect. Many people confuse this with sarcasm.
In a literary context, dramatic irony can also mean a reversal from established parameters. For example, a villain becoming undone by the very earth-killing machine they created.
An oxymoron is a short phrase with a meaning that sounds self-canceling. By drawing a comparison between these two opposing meanings, you help create a contrast that sheds light on your intended meaning.
George Orwell used this to great effect in 1984. By having the dystopian systems gaslight its public with phrases like “War equals love,” Orwell demonstrated the absurdity of living under such a regime.
Synecdoche is similar to a metaphor. But it uses related concepts to help illustrate meaning. For example, introducing children as “mouths to feed” is part-metaphor and part synecdoche, using the concept of hungry mouths to demonstrate the stress that can come to a poor family when there’s another child to take care of.
Metonymy uses substitutions in figurative language to help illustrate a larger idea.
For example, you’ll often hear political reporters talk about what “The White House” did, rather than use a longer phrase to describe the existing presidential administration. Metonymy uses proxies to serve as symbolic language that illuminates meaning on the whole.
Ever ask someone how they’re doing and received an answer like “Well, I’m alive”? Then you may have heard a litote. Litotes use negative meaning to demonstrate a deeper truth.
A common method is to use a double negative, such as “Well, I’m not unhappy” to illustrate what’s going on. This has the effect of making the meaning more vague; someone who’s “not unhappy” should technically be happy, but we know what’s not what they mean.
Antanaclasis uses a single word in different contexts to create different meanings. These words are often repeated.
We can look to Shakespeare again for an example. In Othello, one character tells another: “Put out the light; then put out the light.” This has both a literal meaning of snuffing a candle and a metaphorical meaning of snuffing out another character’s life.
Master Sci-Fi Tropes
Science Fiction & Fantasy: Creating Unique and Powerful Worlds
Tropes as Plot Devices in Literary Genres
Ask most people what “tropes” are and you’ll usually get an answer that sounds closer to a cliche or a stereotype. For example, TVTropes lists “Flanderization” as a type of trope in which TV sitcoms run out of ideas for side characters, ultimately leading them to exaggerate that side character’s flaws and traits. It comes from The Simpsons and Ned Flanders, as many people feel Flanders became an exaggerated version of himself as time went on.
But what about tropes in literary genres? What are the common devices, cliches, and story turns you need to know if you’re going to get in your audience’s heads?
If you know them, you can use them to great effect.
Common Tropes in Literary Genres
Damsel in distress: We’re all familiar with this one in romance novels. A character is tied down and the monster is approaching—figurative or otherwise. This is a common trope that works for any gender, because it lends dramatic tension and inherent motivation to the protagonist. The romance novel Taming the Scotsman by Kinley MacGregor uses this trope to good effect, never once making the reader doubt the suspension of their disbelief.
The fake-out: Is there anything more unsettling than thinking the main antagonist is done with, only to find out they’re not quite dead? In Stephen King’s It, Pennywise casts an eerie presence over the story due to graffiti that reads PENNYWISE LIVES.
The chosen outcast: Many people identify with fantasy themes because they often draw direct connections between outsiders and their role in the events of the world.
In George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, many fans of this trope believe that Jon Snow’s ultimate destiny will be akin to what happens in the TV show, where Snow’s greater destiny is finally unveiled.
“Planet of hats”: Can you sum up the Earth in one sentence? Probably not. Yet in science fiction, it seems that most planets have a single defining feature: this one is a desert planet, that is a gambling planet, etc.
Call it an unoriginal worlds problem. Frank Herbert made good use of anti-tropes in his Dune series by creating Arrakis with different cultures and creatures, despite it being defined by its vast deserts.
The lone cowboy: Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” begins as a lone cowboy moving across vast, hostile terrains in his Dark Tower series. Yet as the story progresses, we learn much more about this fantasy setting that elevates this lone cowboy trope into something special.
The stalker/coercive ex: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl isn’t defined by the stalkerish Desi Collings, and in fact there are brutal twists in store for Desi that ultimately turn this trope on its head and keep the third act of the book entirely unpredictable—as is exactly the goal in a psychological thriller.
Mystery/Cozy Mystery Tropes
The red herring: Agatha Christie was a master of using red herrings and false “positives” to misdirect the audience while the real killer was on the loose. Done right, this can have the effect of having the audience watch one hand while you move the real antagonist with the other. Do the same and you’ll boost the power of your mystery writing.
Writing Tropes That Work
As a writer, it can be unsettling to think you have an original idea and yet ended up writing a trope. But knowledge of both types of tropes—both figurative language and common literary devices—will help you remain conscious of your own writing.
Master them, understand them, and learn when to turn them on their head. Ultimately, the better you are at mastering tropes and writing your book step-by-step, the better you can press your audience’s buttons.
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