Ask an Editor: Why Tropes Can Be a Good Thing
Every writer wants to craft a uniquely original story, and we all know how important it is to avoid clichés. You don’t want your work to seem tired and derivative. But there’s also something to be said for the comfort of familiarity. Most of the time, people want something “like this, but different.” And when they say that, what they’re actually saying is they want a new take on their favorite tropes, whether its fairytale retellings or the boy next door or a classic whodunit.
And that can be hard for some people to reconcile. How is an author supposed to provide comforting familiarity while also being completely original? It’s hard! But honestly, there really are only so many plots in the world.
When I was in college, I had to listen to many theories of literary criticism that argued about how many different plots there were. (Just pick up a copy of Hero with a Thousand Faces. Or, you know, Google it.) But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is to understand that it’s very, very rare to come up with a completely unique story.
Two people meet, they’re attracted to each other, they face adversity, they overcome it, and they fall in love. Hurray! You have basically every romance in the world, millions and millions of fantastic books. But at the core, they’re all based on the same basic formula. Fantasy novels have slightly different formulas, as do all the other genres. Every blockbuster movie can be broken down into certain beats. There’s an entire genre of screenwriting guides that can explain this. These different formulas are what separate stories into different genres. And that’s a good thing! It makes it easier for readers to find more of the kinds of stories that they want.
In the end, it’s all about balance. The trick is to embrace the trope that your story employs and really make it your own.
There were books about schools of magic before J.K. Rowling. (I swear there were. I remember reading and loving them! And there is an entire genre of British boarding school books—which Harry Potter also falls into.) But what Jo Rowling did was take this concept and bring it to life in a way that was so powerful and iconic, that afterwards any writer who wants to write about a school of magic has to be careful that it’s NOT Hogwarts that they’re writing about. In my opinion, she kind of perfected that trope.
But if in your heart of hearts you’re dying to write about kids that go to a magical school, go for it! Just make sure that you’re doing something to make it YOUR magical school, that you’re taking that trope and doing something different from what’s already out there. Your take can be inspired by stories told in the past (look at Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series), but you need to add enough differentiating features to separate it from what has come before.
Look at the books that you love, the stories you come back to again and again. Are there any similarities? Certain settings? Types of characters? Themes that you really, really love? There might only be seven basic plots in the world, or whatever the number is, and there might be a million stories that use the same basic elements. But as long as you the author care enough about what you’re writing to really craft it into something personal and special, it can still stand up as something unique and original.
That’s the difference between a trope and a
cliché. A trope is an element you use to
build your story, a cliché is using a trope exactly the same way as everyone
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