Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Here a Trope, There a Trope, Everywhere a Trope Trope

First, if you're not familiar with what exactly a literary trope is, here is a definition I found online: A literary trope is the use of figurative language for artistic effect, such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

There's a lot more to literary tropes beyond the fact that a cape is a sign of a superhero and a black hat is a sign of an outlaw, and using tropes in a story is not a sign of weak writing. Quite the contrary. A well used trope, like any other literary device, can enhance a story. One just has to be careful about using ones that are so common they've become clichés.

One that comes to mind is how some of the bad guys are depicted in crime fiction - the muscle to protect the top gangster are so often portrayed as dumb and illiterate. Not that I think a Rhodes Scholar would take up such a job, but I get tired of the ones who don't have a vocabulary beyond, "Should I off him, boss?"

Another overused trope is the love triangle in romance novels. Unless the characters are really compelling, I think the stories are often too much alike to grab my interest.

In The Writing Cooperative, an article by Zoe Nixon shares the Top 12 Overused Story Tropes in Modern Literature. It validated my belief that the love triangle is a tired old trope, and I agreed with her other mentions as well: The reluctant hero who saves the day. The sudden realization of true love and the rush to get someplace in time to tell the person. 

While doing this online research about tropes I found a very helpful article on the site, Your Dictionary. The article, Examples of Tropes and Their Meaning, gives examples of tropes in film and comic books, as well as some literary tropes. It, too, is well worth the read. 

The article includes this list of other types of tropes:

  • Irony - expectations and reality are contrasted (i.e. saying a family is noble then showing they aren’t)
  • Allegory - when images or events are symbolic (i.e. Wall-E symbolizes why it’s important to protect Earth)
  • Euphemism - using polite words to replace harsh ones (i.e. passing away rather than dying)
  • Metaphor - something containing an implied comparison (i.e. drowning in sadness)
  • Metonymy - when a word stands for a concept (i.e. “hand” meaning help)
  • Synecdoche - when a small part represents the whole thing (i.e. “wheels” representing the whole car)
  • Personification - giving human characteristics to an inanimate object (i.e. the stars winked at me)
  • Simile - comparing two unlike things in a unique way (i.e. you’re as tall as a giraffe)
We writers use these tropes all the time, some more consciously than others, like metaphor and simile. They can both be such powerful ways of presenting something to the reader, and ones with fresh and new phraseology can be a delight.

A book I recently read is a good example of some tropes used well and written with that fresh approach. The book is  River Sing Out by James Wade. He uses the trope of impending doom in the form of a storm that threatens to push the river into flooding. The river is important to Jonah, the main character, as well as others who live nearby. They rely on it for food when pantries are bare, and when the rains come and the river rises, it is no longer a friend. “And through these ages untold, the river did act as the lifeblood of all those things alongside it.”

Please do share your thoughts on tropes and perhaps examples of those overused and those used well. 

Award-winning author Maryann Miller has numerous credits as a columnist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. She also has an extensive background in editing. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page read her Blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Her most recent book is a short-story collection, Beyond the Crack in the Sidewalk, released by Next Chapter Publishing and available as an ebook or paperback.


  1. When the use of literary tropes was chosen as our July theme, I had no idea what they were. After a little research, I still felt a bit confused. This post clarifies what they are, how they're used (and overused), and why they are a valuable writing tool to create word pictures in the minds of readers. These creative "visuals" go a long way toward treating a reader to a vivid mental motion picture and making a book a truly memorable read. Thank you, Maryann, for this informative post. It's a keeper. :-)

    1. So glad you found this post helpful. I'll admit I didn't have a good handle on what a trope is until I did some research. I had a sorta idea. LOL It really was interesting to find out what they are, and the types of tropes for film and comic books that are different from literary tropes.

  2. Good post, Maryann. I think we all use tropes to some extent without ever knowing that's what we're doing. I'm trying to think if I've used the dumb heavy mob guy in any of my books. Can't think that I did. I usually like to write them against type. I have used the Gordon Gekko type from the movie Wall Street, slicked back hair, suspenders, and shiny suit, so I will be careful from now on.

    1. Polly, using that Gordon Gekko type is just fine if you give your character even one thing that is different. I think that is a key in "typing" secondary characters. My co-author for Doubletake, Margaret, did a great job with our forensics expert. She gave him a bow tie that bobbed along with his prominent Adam's apple and that was different than giving him the thick horn-rimmed glasses that many scientists are given in fiction.

    2. Oh, I made him different that Gekko. He's vile and horrible and a murderer. Gekko in the movie was just greedy.


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