If you had to guess what a religious/fantasy comedy, a classic regency romance, a space opera, and a teen vampire soap opera have in common, what would you say?
Well if you’re smart, you’d say “trope” because I basically gave it away in the title.
Specifically I mean Good Omens, Pride and Prejudice, The Empire Strikes Back, and Vampire Diaries. And also I mean a specific romance trope that most people are at least familiar with: enemies to lovers. That’s right, Crowley and Aziraphale, Elizabeth and Darcy, Han and Leia, and Damon and Elena all follow the same romance trope in their plots and subplots. So do about a kergillion others but these are the ones I came up with off the top of my head.
But let me back up just a scootch and give my inspiration for writing this post, because yes that is relevant. There was a post on one of my writerly groups where someone was looking for other like-minded writers who dislike and don’t need tropes in their writing. Surely the poster isn’t the only one? Tropes are bad, and yes they can be useful when marketing sure, but we don’t really need them! I’m so sick of them! If you agree, then let’s get together and write stories that don’t have tropes! Also this question always gets a lot of negativity so if you can’t be positive then please don’t comment. Thx.
That was my best summary because the post got taken down. But that’s okay because I got the gist of it in there.
I swear to god I was nice. I was so nice. I typed up a big long explanatory comment, no negativity. I just wanted them to understand that they weren’t going to find what they were looking for because they were using the wrong terminology, the things they were describing weren’t actually tropes. And also tropes aren’t bad, and they are also super required.
But of course by the time I was ready to hit enter, the post had been deleted and all of my obsessive (but super polite and professional!) paragraphs of comments were wasted.
But that’s okay… because I have a blog. And I haven’t posted here since… holy shit January! God what have I been doing this year???
First things first, let’s define what a trope actually is. A trope is basically a plot framework. A skeleton. In fact, you could even say it’s a slightly more specific plot arc. Let’s start with the basic plot arc, which we all know and love:
And now let’s add the enemies to lovers trope to this arc to slightly narrow down the plot arc:
Do you see how a trope is simply a more specific plot arc? This can be done with literally any trope on the planet. Let’s do reluctant hero:
I could go on and on, but there’s only so much attention span in the world so let’s move on.
I mean, according to the original poster that started this whole rant, why do we need the trope at all? Couldn’t we just stick to the basic plot arc? Ignore all the tropes? Just do what we want to do?
Yes of course you can. But you would only end up creating more tropes, whether you meant to or not.
Because a trope doesn’t exist in order for us to fill it out. It’s not something that people created in order to make writing easier or cookie-cutter or marketable. It exists because logically, if you set up an event, there are expected other events that will follow from it. Period.
But it’s not that simple
Or rather, it’s incredibly simple. Because no one trope is The Trope of the story, you know? A good story will have many, many tropes that all go together and support each other. Each one has its own mini arc that fits into the main plot arc like a puzzle piece. And that’s how you get… wait for it…
That’s right, that’s what a sub plot is lol.
That is why all four of my examples are so extremely diverse. Even though all four all have one trope in common does not mean they tell the same story. Nor that their expression of this enemies-to-lovers trope is tired or cliched or even easy to spot sometimes.
For Pride and Prejudice, their moment of having to rely on each other (saving Lydia from social ruin) comes after Elizabeth stops seeing Darcy as an enemy (when Darcy writes a letter explaining everything). It doesn’t mark the end of their hatred. Rather it marks the beginning of a friendship.
For Vampire Diaries (show… the books were not my cup-o-tea), Elena and Damon wallowed in a state of begrudgingly tolerating and relying on each other for like 2 years. During this time, different tropes kept the story going.
For Good Omens, their enemy status was more of a formality than anything else. They are both exhausted from constantly butting heads and cancelling each other out… what if they just kind of stop? It would be so much more chill if we just said we did our devilish and heavenly influencing, right? Do people ever really check the paperwork?
Star Wars really does the trope in the most traditional way. Han and Leia are not enemies, they just don’t like each other. But they are forced to rely on each other again and again during the course of their adventures. I’m not even sure if they knew when that reliance turned to loyalty, trust, and genuine appreciation for each other. It was very smooth.
And if you miss things…
I’ll include a real world example. I once beta read for a sci fi author who unintentionally used the enemies to lovers trope… but they skipped the trope beat where the enemies had to rely on each other. They went straight from “I hate you” to “I love you” with no in between. I caught it immediately because I knew what to look for. But it’s the reader that counts, right? Well the reader would have likely been very disappointed in this romance, which was a major subplot in the book. Even if a reader knows nothing about tropes or romance or anything like that, they would look at this subplot and think… why are they all the sudden being nice to each other? Didn’t they hate each other two chapters ago? What changed?
And for another example, I’ve already written a big long rant about how the tv show Community set up the grumpy/sunshine trope and then left the audience hanging. They put up signpost after signpost that Jeff and Annie were going to be a romantic couple, but then just… shit all over it. To put it bluntly lol.
But when you do things right, you get something more akin to Crowley and Aziraphale.
Ugh guys, I am just reeling from the end of Season 2 of Good Omens and I NEED THEM TO MAKE SEASON THREE. I swear to god.
Okay, shake it off, Anna.
Good Omens and its incredible fan service
There wasn’t a romance in the Good Omens book, but when Gaiman wrote the television adaption, he added in a ton of enemies to lovers romance beats to season one. Now, whether he did it intentionally or not, I don’t know. Maybe he meant for it to be a platonic version of the trope, which is also a great thing.
But the point is, viewers saw those signposts in season one, probably unconsciously for the most part, and the pair became the “ineffable husbands” in tribute videos and fan fiction/art all over the internet. And it was GLORIOUS.
And then, either because Gaiman saw the effect Season 1 had on fans, or maybe because it was his plan all along — he knew he had set up a specific enemies to lovers trope here. So he delivered on this trope in Season 2. And it was GLORIOUS.
Imagine what an incredible flop it would have been if Season 2 had been just as funny, just as clever, but with no romance arc for Crowley and Aziraphale? It would have been well accepted, but probably unremarkable. I certainly don’t think fans would be clamoring for another season.
But even though Gaiman was paying attention to his audience and giving them what they wanted… he wasn’t pandering. He didn’t sacrifice story to just spoon feed the audience what they wanted. He is completing the trope that he set up in Season 1. He made the audience want a romance, and then he delivered that romance. This isn’t pandering. This is knowing his tropes to make sure he could deliver what he promised his audience.
Why do people seem to dislike tropes?
Well, it’s because trope has somehow become associated with cliches. I mean, not somehow. It’s quite obvious if I think about it for more than two seconds.
There is a common criticism of movies and books that a lot of us have heard before: “It was very tropey.”
A lot of people hear this and think, “Oh man, there were a lot of tropes in this story. Tropes must be bad, especially if there’s a lot of them.”
But that’s not what the criticism means. “Too tropey” means that the skeleton of the story was exposed. It wasn’t filled out with character and agency. The author relied too much on the framework to hold up the story rather than relying on the characters’ decision making.
Let’s glance back at the Avatar: The Last Airbender. The cartoon from Nickelodeon is a fantastic story from beginning to end. The characters are just… omg. Just go watch it if you haven’t. The show was so popular that it was made into a movie… which Avatar fans refuse to acknowledge the existence of.
But why was the movie so so so so bad? It was fucking tropey, that’s why. Sorry for swearing. I’m going to admit it has been a very, very long time since I saw that shitshow of a movie, so I don’t remember it super well. But the problem was that all of what made the characters amazing was stripped away, and all that was left were the basic tropes. Which, on their own, are about as interesting as a lump of granite.
Tropes have become synonymous with cliche. And yes, some tropes do become cliched when they’re in the public eye too much in too short a time. But they are not the same thing. Not at all. Oftentimes when people say they dislike tropes, what they mean is they dislike cliches. Which, of course they dislike them. That’s why they’re cliched.
And it’s okay to dislike certain tropes. I mean, not everyone will like every kind of story. That’s just how it is. But just because you dislike chosen ones, wise old mentors, age gap romances, and alternate universes doesn’t mean you also have to hate grumpy/sunshine, secret labs, super heroes, or whatever the fuck else.
Sorry for swearing.
Okay, bye love you.