Aug 3rd, 2021
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Transcript (by TK)
[Upbeat Ukulele Intro Music]
Rekka: This is We Make Books, a podcast about writing publishing and everything in between. Rekka is a published Science Fiction and Fantasy author, and Kaelyn is a professional genre fiction editor. Together, they'll tackle the things you never knew you never knew about getting a book from concept to finished product, with explanations, examples, and a lot of laughter. Get your moleskin notebook ready. It's time for We Make Books.
Kaelyn: We’re talking about tropes today, which is something that I think a lot of people hear spoken about in a negative context: falling back on using too many tropes, or stories following really common tropes.
Rekka: And we don’t appreciate that kind of shaming.
K [laughs]: No, we certainly do not trope sh--see this is gonna be a problem because I was doing research for this and the word ‘trope’ is difficult to say over and over again.
R: Trope, trope, trope, trope, trope.
K: It’s, what do they call that, when a word becomes a sound? Semantic satiation.
K: Yes. The word ‘trope’ has become more of a sound to me and it’s sort of lost meaning [laughing] at times but--So quick definitions, there’s the actual word ‘trope’ comes from Greek, because of course it does, it all does--
R: You mean it isn’t a contraction of tightrope?
K: It should be, that would be so much better.
K: A literary trope is using figurative language, like words, phrases, images, for artistic effect. So there’s a bunch of different kinds of tropes that fall under literary tropes. Things like metaphors, irony, allegory, oxymorons; those are all considered tropes. Hyperbole is another good example of that, really over-exaggerating. The way this came about was, apparently, because it is Greek and it’s from Greek theatre, of course, ‘to alter, to direct, to change, to turn’--all of these translations kinda line up with that, but they’re considered an important element of classical rhetoric. Especially in Greek theatre where it was very dialogue-heavy, and so you had to sort of use all of these words and everything to paint a picture to explain to the audience what was going on. All of that said, we’re not really here to talk about literary tropes today. They’re an important story-telling device, though, and they’re something that is considered, I would say, necessary to higher literature and writing and if you’re panicking going ‘oh my God, I don’t know all of this stuff’--well the thing is you’re probably doing this anyway and not realizing.
R: A lot of writers don’t come from writing backgrounds and don’t know the terms for the thing, don’t stress too much about it.
K: We’re talking today primarily about story tropes. I think a lot of times you’re gonna encounter this in a negative light. It’s a frequent criticism I feel like that’s leveraged especially against fiction, especially against fantasy and science fiction books and writing; in some areas of fiction it’s actually celebrated.
K: You pick which trope you’re gonna write.
R: You cannot proceed without mentioning the other half of that, which is that some people are like ‘Okay, I pick my books based on the tropes I wanna read about.’
R: Like, ‘Where’s my time travel?’
K [laughs]: Yeah. We wanted to talk about why that is. We wanted to talk about what story tropes are, and why they’re not necessarily as bad and, in our humble opinions--
R: Not so humble.
K: --not so humble opinions, as everyone thinks they are. So, definition: what is a story trope? It’s a commonly used plot or character device, essentially. A story trope is something that shows up in literature and stories over and over again, to the point that it may actually be a subgenre within a broader genre.
R: That’s not to say it is an entire plot of a book that shows up over and over again, like the Hero’s Journey is not necessarily a trope.
R: The smaller pieces of plot or character might be the trope. Like the farmboy would be a trope.
K: Yeah, the farmboy is a trope. The surprise hero is a trope.
R: Prophesied one.
K: Yeah, the prophesied one; time-travel to go back and reset the future, that could be a trope. The noble outlaw--
R [overlapping]: Right.
K: --is a good trope, the secret relative, the-- All of these elements and story parts that are things you just see all the time in books. So if you’re going ‘well, I like those’--
K: Like yeah, of course you do!
R [overlapping]: Yeah.
K [laughing]: That’s why they’re popular! That’s why these keep coming up. Anything from like, a secret legacy or an unknown lost child, unfound powers that suddenly appear at just the right time, or anyone being secretly special for some reason.
R [overlapping]: [giggles]
K: But these are part of what make stories fun. They’re not the larger plot, they’re the elements that make up the characters and the plot.
R: And you can use them like spice in a recipe--
K [overlapping]: [laughs]
R: --to come up with something that is entirely your own but tastes familiar and pleasing.
K: Yeah. Now obviously, different genres are going to have different tropes that you see recurring in there. So before we get into why tropes are good, let’s talk a little bit about why they’re frequently seen as a negative.
R: I have feelings about this.
R: I think they’re frequently seen as a negative because if you come to lean too heavily on tropes, they can make your story feel either derivative or predictable.
K: I was gonna say contrived, yeah, but same.
R: Don’t you ever say that about one of my stories, Kaelyn.
K: I would never say that about one of your stories. If you’re leaning too heavily on tropes, if you’re just pulling things that you know are popular or cool things you read in other books that you went like ‘oh wow that’s awesome, I wanna write something like that,’ you’re almost not writing a story. You’re putting together a sequence of events and characters that you liked from other things.
R: Is that fanfiction, is that what you’re implying?
K: Ohhh, oh, there’s a--God, I’m not ready to wade into that question! [laughs]
R: But we should touch on the fact that tropes are major fanfiction fuel. Sometimes that’s the entire point of the piece, is that ‘take this trope and apply it to this IP that I love.’
R: In that case, that can be the goal. To be, not that contrived but obviously, specifically derivative--not in the negative sense of the term, but like you’re writing fanfiction, it is derivative of this IP, and you’re applying this trope to it because you just think that would be fun. So people can have fun with it.
R: And not for the right reasons, but it might feed into this impression that tropes are derivative or contrived.
K: I think also it goes to storytelling abilities. If your entire book is just laden with secret Targaryens and lost bloodlines and magic powers nobody knew about, chosen ones and prophecies and it’s just the entire story is that, it’s probably not a great story, because it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of room in there for character development and arcs and intricate and original plots.
R: Having said that…
K: Or, wait, other direction: it may be way too complicated. Because that’s a lot of stuff to juggle.
R: Well there’s that, yeah. Having said that, I don’t think you could say that there is a restrained amount of troping in something like Gideon the Ninth.
K: No. No, absolutely not.
R: So it can be done.
K: Here’s the thing. That story is set in such an original setting with such original characters, in original worldbuilding and magic system if you will, that I think it more than makes up for all of that. That’s just my opinion, ‘cause you know Rekka and I can’t get through an episode without referencing Gideon the Ninth and using that as an example of--
R [overlapping]: I think there’s one or two.
R: But specifically when you talk about things that are trope-based, or fandom-based, I think you have to acknowledge that there is always an exception to this ‘be careful around fanfic,’ or ‘be careful around tropes.’ Like ‘don’t put too many in’--or! Put them all in!
K [laughs]: It’s I think a matter of knowing how to use them. I don’t think a lot of writers set out with the intention of ‘I am going to write to this trope,’ it’s just something that happens.
R: Although I think a lot of tropes have inspired anthologies. ‘I want this kind of book, I want an anthology full of that kind of story.’
R: And it’s one or two tropes smashed together, or it’s a trope applied to a certain genre or character type. I think it’s happening a lot, where people are looking for a way to find joy. And tropes really are like candy.
K: So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about why tropes are good, why these things that show up in every story show up in every story--it’s because they’re fun!
R: It’s also really good marketing.
R: It’s a lot easier to come up with comp titles when you’re pitching a book if everybody’s drawing from a fairly reasonably sized pool of tropes.
K: Let’s be clear here. These things can go in cycles. I remember a few years ago everyone was retelling or reinterpreting old fairy tales. I felt like that was just something I saw all the time. I will call that a trope, more or less, that is something that speaks to a specific reader and something that somebody’s gonna wanna pick up, like ‘oh well I really liked when this person did it, I’m gonna try this book now as well.’
R: So that speaks to what you said earlier about them becoming like a niche genre.
K: Yeah, absolutely. Young adult fiction, especially within science fiction and fantasy, I think is constantly at the mercy of whatever trope is popular at the time. YA definitely fell to the fairy tale retelling trend at some point; YA books with a central character, usually a young woman or older teenage girl, who was not necessarily a prophesied champion but has to save everyone on her own even though she doesn’t want to; science fiction, there’s everything from time travel to artificial intelligence to very specific kinds of space battles and things, but! It speaks to a certain reader.
K: There are these things that create these subgenres, and that’s really helpful for readers, because I think what we’re skirting around that nobody wants to say is, you don’t want to put readers in a position where they’re just reading the same story over and over, but I know a lot of people who just like to read the same story over and over. People who are very into romance novels.
R: There’re definitely a set of tropes that romance novels have to pick from, just like there are tropes that other genres have to pick from, and when you read a book that you really love, and romance often tickles a specific audience, they want more like that. Think of the first Thor movie where he tries coffee and he says “I like this beverage. Another!” and smashes it down on the floor--
K [overlapping]: Yes! [laughs]
R: People will smash their books down on the floor and demand another because they read through it so quickly and it was exactly what they wanted, and they want to feel that feeling again. Just with new characters.
K: I’m gonna qualify all this by saying none of this is a criticism of the romance genre. Romance writers a lot of times write to specific tropes: the marriage of convenience, or the marriage of ‘we didn’t know each other beforehand but someone found this legal document that our families betrothed us’--
R: Or a fake marriage--
K [overlapping]: Yeah.
R: --that turns into a real marriage.
K: Co-workers to friends to lovers type thing.
R: Only one bed.
K: Yes, exactly, exactly.
R: These are by the way coming into genre fiction, science fiction and fantasy--
K [overlapping]: Yup.
R: Where romance is becoming more welcome in the books.
R: Actual romance, as opposed to ‘you are a buxom babe who stowed away on my spaceship therefore we are a couple.’ The depth of character is now allowing for these tropes to trickle in as characters get to know each other in a more interesting way, and less classic pairing-off.
K: I’m sure most people listening to this know or probably even a family member that just obsessively consumes romance novels. I think back to my grandmother and my aunt having stacks of those mass market paperback ones that all have like, essentially the same cover just different backgrounds and clothes.
R: Hey look, when we talk about your cover art, you need to look at what your industry in your genre is--
K [overlapping]: Yes, absolutely!
R: --putting on the shelf and you want to communicate that you are making the same promise to the reader. So you have very similar covers in romance, ‘cause there’s only so many ways to be austere while still posing two characters together.
K [laughing]: I would say that the two genre groups of readers that will most vivaciously consume media are hard military SF and romance, who will just tear through these books and stories, which is fantastic. I have friends that will read at least one, possibly two, romance novels a week. A lot of them do the Kindle Unlimited.
K: Because there’s a lot of romance novels on Kindle unlimited.
R: Well the two systems kinda fed each other.
K: Exactly. But, they have their tropes that they like. Forced into a marriage of convenience, or stranded on an island somewhere.
R: Those are the good ones.
K: Yeah. [laughs] And Kindle will very helpfully keep recommending more and more of those to you, and I don’t want anyone to leave thinking I’m putting down those readers for just wanting the same thing over and over again. Books are there to give you comfort and to spark joy and interest, and if that’s what you wanna read, if that’s what’s making you happy, then that’s what you should be reading.
R: Right. And in that case, tropes are very very good.
K: Tropes are incredibly helpful.
R: And they’re a marketing tool; the people producing the work, they know that their readers like this trope, so an entire world where that trope is kind of central to what’s going on is going to delight people.
K: Something that I see a lot now, and especially with submissions I was seeing this, was a really hard and concerted effort to avoid tropes. And it’s hard to write like that sometimes. Don’t get me wrong; there are books out there that are successfully doing it, that are coming up with really original stories. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to write a full-length novel without having at least a handful of tropes in there.
R: Plus, if it’s successful and it’s original, then someone’s going to mimic that.
K: It will become a trope on its own, eventually.
R [overlapping]: And it becomes a trope. I mean this is where tropes come from, they are not fully forged in the heart of a star.
R: Y’know, they’re a process of people recognizing a thing they like in a book and making sure it’s repeated. That’s exactly what’s going on, so you come up with a story that’s completely original and you’re so proud of it, well, maybe you get to claim being the first, but you’re not going to get to claim being the only for very long.
K: Tropes go back to basically the genesis of human writing.
K: I mean, we consider the Epic of Gilgamesh to be the oldest more or less complete epic story written down, at this point. It’s very clear, if you’ve ever read it, that even though we don’t have anything that came before that, there’s elements of the story that were just commonplace storytelling devices of that time. There’s other parts of it that then pop up in later epic tales that it’s impossible to tell well, was this influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh, or was this influenced by common storytelling tropes of the time and the Epic of Gilgamesh just happens to be the one that lasted the longest that we still have?
K: If you ever look into the literary history of Robin Hood, Robin Hood as we know him today did not start off like that.
R [overlapping]: Right.
K: He was just like a straight up highwayman.
R: Bandit, at some point yeah.
K: Bandit, there we go. He regularly kinda killed people to get their money. But, the character evolved as storytelling tropes evolved. We went from Robin Hood being just a lawless bandit who’s funny and laughing while he’s doing all of this to, no no he’s actually the son of an earl who went off on the Crusades and came back and he’s stealing from the rich and giving to the needy. Yeah Robin Hood was just straight up stealing originally--
R [overlapping]: Wow.
K: --in all of these. [laughs]
R: Until suddenly he wasn’t.
K: Until suddenly he wasn’t!
R: And someday in the future, those tropes might change, and the story of Robin Hood would be told differently, and everyone would think that was the best version.
K: There’s actually a lot of what we would probably think of as ‘modern’ tropes that show up in medieval European literature. The special chosen one is very tied to Arthurian legend, which again, if you ever wanna try to put that together, go and--good luck.
R [laughing]: You figure that out, we’re not doing it for you.
K: No [laughs], no. That’s another good example of the evolution of these tropes. And then there’s actually like conflict and everyone was writing different versions of Arthur but because there was no printing press at the time, and there certainly wasn’t any form of mass communication, there’s all of these different versions of what virtues and what values they wanted to highlight in Arthur, based on what was common storytelling at that time. I think that there is this push to write something no one’s ever written, and the thing is you’re never gonna do that.
R: And maybe it’s not even something you wanna aspire to do.
K: No, and it’s okay for authors to write a story based on the story they wanna tell, not based on like, ‘I need to be the most original writer in the history of writing.’ That said, there are definitely readers out there who are always looking for something they’ve never seen before. Maybe you can write one of those! But, it’s still going to have tropes in it.
K: They are inescapable. They are inevitable.
R: Yeah, the level of trope that you include might go up or down, depending on your story, but. Don’t revise your draft and like strip out everything that was fun at the time, just because you’ve seen it before.
K: Rekka and I are obviously coming from a place of primarily Western-fueled literature.
K: Y’know, if you get into different parts of the world, different storytelling traditions, they will also have their own tropes. [laughs]
R: Yeah, they’re not gonna be the same tropes, so if you wanna totally wow a Western audience just go borrow someone else’s tropes.
K: Prophecy and chosen one’s just all over the historical literature, there’s mythical places and people with secret lineages, I think that’s something you’re gonna come across no matter what, because uh. Almost like humanity just really enjoys those facets of storytelling. So. But yeah anyway, when I would get submissions sometimes that I could tell there was a writer that was just trying to be really really original, to just stay away from anything that may have been done before. One of the things I always thought was, “I don’t know how I’m going to sell this to anyone.”
R: Right, ‘cause what do you compare it to?
K: Yeah, that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. But it does make things very difficult. Because if you’re trying to describe something in the context of ‘well do you like this thing? You may also like this’--
R [overlapping]: Mhm.
K: --and you’re not able to do that, it’s hard to sell a book.
R: Right. Exactly. And that’s how the conversations always start, you got the elevator pitches, you’ve got the comp books. And those are the quickest way to get people’s attention, and now you’ve cut yourself off from that.
K: Yeah exactly. That said, nothing wrong with trying to be original. Just be aware it could be, depending on how original you’re going, it could be a little bit of an uphill battle. Again, I will use Gideon the Ninth as a weird pitch--
R [overlapping]: [laughs]
K [laughing]: --for that book, ‘lesbian necromancers in a broken down palace in space,’ and don’t get me wrong, that definitely piqued my interest, but you can see how that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
R: And if it’s the first original book to present this--
K [overlapping]: Mhm.
R: --to a major publisher, they’re going to say, “Who do we put this on the shelf next to? Where do we market this? We don’t use these tropes.”
R: “How do we do?” Y’know?
R: It takes a brave publisher to try something new, even if that new thing is built out of all these amazing fantastic fun tropes.
K: Yeah, exactly.
R: So you can be original, and still combine all these tropes, and just do it in a way that makes people go, “Sorry, what? Say that again?!”
K: That’s kind of one more thing that I would like to talk about. We skirted around Gideon the Ninth--
R: I don’t think we skirted around it.
K: Well--is just trope after trope and I said yeah, but it’s very original in everything else. So if you have sort of what you’d think of as like ‘ugh is this story too cookie-cutter, is it too predictable and too tropey?’ the thing you need to then consider is, alright but everything else I have in here, the worldbuilding, the characters, the technology or the magic system, is that original? You can make up for a lot by having a really original, engaging world that this is set in, and writing really great characters that we’re cheering for and boy do we really want them to be the long-lost secret half-sister of the wizard--
K: We’re just cheering so hard for her, I want for her to have magic powers. So-- [laughs]
R: Especially if you start to lead toward a trope, and you don’t deliver on it, your readers are going to be pretty upset with you.
K: Or maybe they’ll go, ‘wow that’s awesome. I wanna write something like that.’
R: And then it becomes a trope again.
R: Alright, is there anything else tropey to discuss?
K: They’re an endless cycle.
R: Get your innertube and just jump into the lazy river of tropes, and--
K [overlapping]: [laughs]
R: And enjoy, just come around again and it’ll be good. Just write your story.
R: If it’s got tropes in it, that’s cool. If it doesn’t, that’s cool. It will soon.
K [laughing]: And they’re not lazy, let’s be clear!
R: They’re not!
K: No, yeah--
R: But that’s what they call it at a theme park when they jump in with the innertube--
K: No no I’m just, yeah.
R: Okay! So, tropes are good. If anyone tells you otherwise just take your book somewhere else. Someone wants them. They want them very very badly.
K: Also, being constantly rejected and not seeing the brilliance of a character is a good trope too.
R: Yes. And, going for the tropes of podcasting, you can find us online @wmbcast on Twitter and Instagram, and also at Patreon. And if you would be so kind to leave a rating and review, we would love to read it on the air. You could also ask us questions at any of those social media--
K [overlapping]: We love questions.
R: --accounts. That can feed a future tropey episode. Or maybe not tropey, I don’t know! We’ll find out when you ask us questions. Thanks everyone for listening and we’ll talk to you in two weeks!