What is a trope?
According to TV Tropes [i], “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” In other words, a trope is a plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that the audience recognizes, like the unassuming farm boy hero, the rebellion against an oppressive government, or the wise mentor character [ii]. Tropes make stories run, and all stories have tropes. They’re kind of like the building blocks of genre fiction, or bits of basic structural code.
Why are tropes important?
In the article "Originality in Genre Fiction – An Oxymoron?" [iii] the appeal of genre fiction to readers is credited to the “reassuring repetition of central archetypes, elements, themes, or tropes. … [G]enre books are often ‘coded’ in a certain way for their readers, meaning that when you encounter a big, dark, cop hero, you expect an alpha taming story (i.e. the beauty and the beast retelling). … I would argue that this coding is part of the pleasure and satisfaction genre readers derive when they seek out genre books.”
Essentially, romance readers expect a love story and a happily ever after, mystery readers expect a crime to be solved, fantasy readers expect dragons. Okay, maybe not dragons, but the reader goes into the story with expectations he or she assumes will be met based on the genre. Tropes are the conventions within the genre. Like in the above quote, if a romance reader sees an alpha male being all alpha-y, it's expected that he's probably the hero, and that the heroine is going to have to "tame" him. (Preferably with a swift kick to the groin if he's being an alph-hole.) Tropes are appealing because of these familiar expectations. A reader is rewarded with an expected payoff like the hero and heroine finally defeating the villain and true love conquering all, or a reader can be surprised when a favorite trope is twisted in a new or interesting way (like, “OMG dude, I did NOT see that coming. That was awesome!”).
How is a trope different from a cliché?
A trope becomes a cliché when it is predictable to the point of boredom (like, “OMG dude, I saw that coming miles away. I just wasted hours of my life that I’ll never get back.”) [ii]. If tropes are bits of software code, then an author uses tropes to build an app that is familiar to the user and meets their needs, but fresh and exciting enough to warrant downloading it. It's the difference between "Yay, I'm so glad I got this app! It has everything I wanted!" and "Seriously? I have twelve apps like this already. All they did was change the font color. Total ripoff."
Examples of Popular Tropes in Romance Novels
- Friends-to-Lovers/Best-Friends-to-Lovers: Rhonda Helms [iv] explains this one as, “[T]he girl who had a crush on her brother’s bestie for years and years, and he saw her as nothing more than a friend…until one day, VA-VA-VOOM, suddenly she comes back into his life looking SMOKING hot and he’s all, holy crap.” I've always liked this trope, because instead of two strangers falling into insta-love after just meeting, these characters have a history together.
- Reunited Lovers: This is related to the Friends-to-Lovers trope. These characters have a history; they loved each other once, but it didn’t work out, like in Nora Roberts’s The Key of Knowledge and Face the Fire. I LOVE the Three Sisters Island trilogy, so Face the Fire has a special place in my heart. Mia is one tough cookie, and she doesn't want a damn thing to do Sam ever again. Fate, of course, has other ideas for them. Awesome ensues.
- Enemies-to-Lovers/Hate-to-Love: In Beyond Heaving Bosoms [v], Sarah Wendell refers to this as “I don’t wanna love you. I don’t wanna like you. I can’t stop thinking about your hair, dammit!” These two characters hate each other, usually due to some past wrong, yet are extremely attracted to each other. There is much angsty hate make-out.
- Arranged Marriage/Marriage of Convenience [vi]: This trope is often used in historical romances, and is a reader favorite. These characters think that marriage will solve all their political/financial/social problems and that joining forces will be “convenient” for both of them. Then both characters do the one thing that both of them swore they would never do: They fall in love! This is usually followed by pages and pages of angst about, "I love [character], but [he/she] will never love me in return!" So much angst.
- Broken Marriage: This trope often happens when the Arranged/Convenient Marriage goes horribly wrong. Maybe the bride was sent away to the New World, and they’ve spent years apart. Or maybe the characters were high school sweethearts who married too young and divorced, but are reunited as older, wiser people. In the words of the philosopher P!nk, these characters are not broken, just bent, and can learn to love again.
- Class Differences: Hoo boy. She’s a society darling, he’s the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a trust-fund baby from old money, she’s the tough businesswoman who worked her way up from nothing. She’s a princess, he’s a pauper. Clearly they can never be together, but true love conquers all. There is much rejoicing.
- Road Trip: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.” These characters are on a journey somewhere, and they’re stuck together for the duration. Shenanigans ensue.
- Sacrifice: In this trope, a character is dutifully sacrificing for someone they love, such as working two jobs to support a sick loved one, giving up their college fund so a sibling can go to school in his/her place, or working the family business instead of pursuing his/her dreams (think "It's A Wonderful Life"). Then along comes another character who can make everything better. Or worse. Or just make the character see that things will get better, and this too shall pass.
- The Big Misunderstanding [v]: The Big Mis is a common trope of old school romance novels, usually historicals. The Big Mis is based on an unfortunate circumstance—a character overhears gossip about another character, or witnesses a character doing something innocent that is misinterpreted. The Big Mis is a world of bad juju, because the “conflict” it creates can usually be resolved by 5 minutes of honest conversation between the characters.
- One-Night-Stand: Often this trope results in another trope, the Secret Baby. The characters have a steamy night of passion. Consequences ensue.
- Sexy Protector: This trope is a standard for romantic suspense novels. One character is in trouble—on the run from the law, the mob, ninjas, aliens, zombies—and is being protected by a sexy authority figure. This can lead to the One-Night-Stand and then the Secret Baby. Romantic suspense is not really my genre, and though I can certainly understand the appeal of a sexy man (or better, woman) in uniform, but I just don't get the "we are being chased by bad guys, let's stop here for a moment of life-affirming lovin'." Anyway...
- Boardroom Romance: Powerful execs, using office furniture in ways that the manufacturer never intended. This has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to the recent obsession with billionaire heroes. (Yes, I am guilty of having a billionaire hero--well, Harrison's not exactly a hero.) I wonder if this has to do with the sex appeal of characters in well-tailored business attire. Rawr.
Okay. But why are tropes important to me?
Because you can use tropes as inspiration in plotting your novel. Take two or three, incorporate them into your story, then make them yours. Everyone knows the hero's journey--one moment a character is in their ordinary world, then something happens to drag them out of it, drama and angst ensues, then the conflict is solved, the end. It's how you tell your character's story that makes it yours. All the nutritious world-building, all the delicious character quirks, the tasty dialogue, the twist of lime. Mix together, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, and viola! A story that your reader will devour and leave them hungry for more.
So what are your favorite tropes? I loves me some Secret Baby romances. I almost always include a secret baby in the first draft. I can't help it.
[i] Television Tropes and Idioms. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://tvtropes.org.
[ii] Heine, A. (2011, June 10). Tropes vs. Clichés [Web log post]. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://www.adamheine.com.
[iii] Reader, R. (2010, October 19). Originality in Genre Fiction – An Oxymoron? [Web log post]. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://dearauthor.com.
[iv] Helms, R. (2012, April 23). You Tell Us: Your Favorite Story Tropes [Web log post]. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://carinapress.com.
[v] Wendell, S., and Tan, C. (2009). Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[vi] Crutcher, W. (2012, October 3). Romance Tropes and Themes: Marriages of Convenience [Web log post]. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://www.rtbookreviews.com.