Books have always been a huge part of my life. As an avid reader, I’ve consumed thousands of novels across various genres over the years. Throughout this journey, I’ve become intimately familiar with the many tropes authors employ in their storytelling. Tropes are recurring literary devices, motifs, character types, or plot structures that provide a shared shorthand between the storyteller and the audience. While tropes are often derided as clichés, the truth is they remain prevalent because, when executed well, they resonate with readers.
In this article, I’ll share my first-hand experiences and feelings about common book tropes. As a lifelong book lover and an aspiring writer myself, I have a deep appreciation for the nuanced ways authors utilize tropes to craft compelling narratives. By taking you through my own personal journey of discovering, analyzing, and learning from tropes, I hope to provide a practical resource for book lovers and writers alike. Buckle up, fellow bibliophiles – we have a fun trope-filled adventure ahead!
In This Article, You Will Learn:
- What tropes are and why they persist in storytelling
- Examples of common tropes across various genres and categories
- How to use tropes effectively versus rely on clichéd versions
- Tricks for subverting and twisting tropes to surprise readers
- My personal feelings on trope pet peeves and favorites
- Tips for studying tropes to improve your own writing
- How tropes can enrich book discussions and recommendations
What Are Book Tropes?
Simply put, a book trope is a recurring literary device or convention that’s become commonly associated with a particular genre or type of story. The word “trope” originates from the Greek word “tropos,” meaning “turn” or “way.” In storytelling, a trope is a figurative turn of phrase that’s been turned so often it becomes an expected element within certain books.
Tropes have perpetuated throughout the history of literature because they form a shared language between creator and audience. When deployed skillfully, tropes can quickly convey information that helps readers understand character types, plot points, or themes. They provide a set of narrative building blocks that allow writers to construct stories that feel pleasantly familiar yet original.
Of course, tropes can also become crutches. Relying too heavily on clichéd versions of popular tropes often leads to stale, derivative stories. The line between an effective trope and a trite cliché is subjective and ever-shifting. As readers, we crave novelty but also enjoy the comfort of the familiar. Masterful writers manage to walk this fine line, incorporating tried-and-true tropes while also breathing new life into them.
What’s the Difference Between Literary and Genre Tropes?
When discussing book tropes, it’s important to note the difference between literary tropes and genre tropes. Literary tropes are common rhetorical devices like metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, and irony. These stylistic flourishes season the writing itself.
Genre tropes, on the other hand, are narrative elements like motifs, character archetypes, plot devices, and story patterns specific to a certain category of fiction. So you have fantasy tropes like the “chosen one” or “orphan hero.” Romance tropes include “enemies to lovers” and “forbidden love.” Mystery tropes feature sly detectives and clues like “the red herring.”
The two types of tropes aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Great writers employ literary tropes as they construct narratives around the shared touchstones of a particular genre. But when discussing recurring plot devices and story elements, we’re usually talking specifically about genre tropes. These shared motifs shape the familiar landscapes that define genres.
Should You Use Tropes? Are They Good or Bad?
Whether tropes are good or bad depends entirely on how they’re deployed by the author. While overused tropes can make a book feel derivative, they aren’t inherently negative. On the contrary, tropes persist because they tap into universal themes and emotions that resonate deeply with readers.
Used skillfully, tropes provide a narrative shorthand that lets authors quickly establish character motivations and plot points. For example, the “chosen one” trope immediately conveys that a seemingly ordinary character has an extraordinary destiny ahead of them. This trope speaks to the reader’s own desire for meaning and adventure.
Bad writers lean on tropes like lazy crutches while good writers put them to work as tools. Tropes should never dictate the action but rather serve the story’s internal logic and unique characters. The most effective writers incorporate familiar tropes while also undermining reader expectations and recasting tired conventions in an original light.
Ultimately, I believe skilled writers should embrace tropes for their possibilities while continuously pushing against their boundaries. Avoiding tropes altogether restricts a writer, but thoughtlessly regurgitating them is equally dangerous. Use tropes strategically to both meet and subvert reader expectations. When manipulated deftly, tropes yield unlimited storytelling potential.
The Full List of Book Tropes
Now that we’ve defined what tropes are and what purpose they serve, let’s dive in and explore some of the most common tropes across popular genres. This list compiles all the beloved devices I’ve encountered over hundreds of books. They run the gamut from classic archetypes to genre conventions to plot twists and more.
- The Quest: The hero embarks on a journey for a magical artifact or to accomplish a momentous task. Think Frodo trekking to Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
- The Task Force: A ragtag group bands together, often reluctantly, for a dangerous mission. See The Dirty Dozen or Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.
- The MacGuffin: A much-sought-after object that drives the plot and motivates the characters. The Maltese Falcon in the eponymous novel is a classic example.
- Non-Stop Action: Success comes down to how the hero navigates relentless battles, chases, explosions, fights, etc. Indiana Jones excels at death-defying feats of action.
- The Chosen One: A hero discovers they’ve been chosen by destiny to confront a looming evil. Like Neo in The Matrix.
Children’s Book Tropes
- Anthropomorphic Characters: Animals, objects, or imaginary creatures that talk, have human qualities, and convey lessons. See Winnie the Pooh or The Secret Garden.
- Triumph of the Underdog: A small, weak, or disadvantaged protagonist defeats a much larger threat through courage and wit. The Borrowers exemplifies this trope.
- The Power of Friendship: Loyal friends who accept each other’s differences and collaborate to overcome obstacles. Harry Potter emphasizes camaraderie.
- The Fish out of Water: A character is displaced into a strange new environment. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz or British schoolchildren sent to live in the countryside during wartime air raids.
- The Precocious Child: Wise and quirky beyond their years. Matilda is a stellar example.
- Overcoming Hardships: Characters persevere through traumas like poverty, illness, grief, abuse, war, discrimination, etc. and undergo personal growth. Very common in literary fiction.
- Stuck in a Small Town: After outgrowing their provincial hometown, a restless character longs to escape rural boredom and seek their destiny in the big city. Featured in innumerable coming-of-age tales.
- Fish Out of Water: Transplanting a character into an environment where they’re an outsider makes for lots of awkward humor and insightful observations about both worlds. Legally Blonde nails this trope.
- Defying Expectations: A character rebels against societal expectations associated with their gender, race, class, etc. and finds empowerment by forging their own path. See The House on Mango Street.
- The Hero’s Journey: Per Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, a hero ventures forth from the ordinary world, faces trials, reaches an innermost cave, endures a supreme ordeal, seizes a reward, and returns home changed. The archetypal fantasy arc.
- The Dark Lord: A threatening evil overlord who seeks dominion and must be overthrown by the hero. The Ur-example is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron.
- The Magic Mentor: A wise wizard or witch who trains the hero to develop their own magical abilities. Think Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings.
- A Prophecy Foretold: A divined prediction proclaims the hero as the chosen one destined to confront the looming evil. Harry Potter got saddled with this trope before he could walk.
- The Magic Weapon: Swords, staffs, wands, rings, and other objects imbued with magical powers to help the hero on their quest. See: the One Ring, Gandalf’s staff, etc.
Historical Fiction Tropes
- Sweeping Sagas: Epic tales stretching across generations, often following a core family through major historical events. See The Thorn Birds or Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series.
- The Ill-Fated Romance: Lovers torn apart by class differences, familial obligations, cultural customs, or other circumstances endemic to the time period. The classic story of Romeo and Juliet.
- Everyday Life in the Past: Providing an intimate glimpse into the daily experiences of people in bygone eras through period detail. Diana Gabaldon excels at this in her Outlander novels.
- Surviving Adversity: Characters overcoming major hardships like war, slavery, religious persecution, etc. while exhibiting courage and resilience. Central theme of most Holocaust fiction.
- Royals Behaving Badly: The scandalous, libertine antics of aristocrats provide juicy drama along with sociopolitical commentary. Shows like The Tudors luxuriate in this trope.
- The Haunted House: Peculiar and unexplained occurrences inside a foreboding domicile hint at otherworldly inhabitants. The prototypical Amityville Horror house.
- The Intrepid Scholar: A professor, researcher, scientist, or other academic who arrogantly delves into mysterious phenomena, often unlocking horrors. See Frankenstein or H.P. Lovecraft tales.
- The Ancient Evil: An ancient demon, curse, or malevolent entity resurfaces in the modern world after being buried for centuries. Stephen King employs this often, as in Pet Sematary.
- ** Gore Galore:** Technically a motif. But horror aficionados expect generous helpings of blood, gore, dismemberment, torture, etc. Saw and Hostel are prime examples.
- The Sweet but Sinister Child: Children can be more terrifying than adult monsters thanks to their inherent innocence. The Omen and The Exorcist memorably weaponized this trope.
- The Unreliable Narrator: A narrator with a compromised perspective calls story details into question. This trope adds layers of ambiguity. Seen in The Great Gatsby and Lolita.
- The Stream of Consciousness: Rambling internal monologues conjure a chaotic cavalcade of impressions. Virginia Woolf perfected this modernist technique in Mrs. Dalloway.
- Magical Realism: Fantastical events intrude on otherwise ordinary circumstances in a deadpan manner. Gabriel García Márquez blended magic and realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Postmodern Playfulness: Self-referentiality, metafiction, fragmentation, and rejecting conventional narrative techniques. Common in the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.
- The Antihero: A deeply flawed and morally ambiguous protagonist who acts based on self-interest rather than noble ideals. Memorably embodied by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- The Closed Circle: Suspects confined to the scene of the crime. Agatha Christie loved trapping her characters at isolated locations likes mansions and trains.
- The Red Herring: An irrelevant clue that misleads investigators and readers from the truth. Red herrings abound on the road to unraveling Christie’s intricate plots.
- The Detective’s Confidant: A sidekick like Sherlock Holmes’ Watson who acts as a foil and compels the detective to explain their brilliant deductions aloud.
- The Private Eye: A hardboiled detective who plays by their own rules and undertakes independent investigations. Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon exemplifies this trope.
- The Amateur Sleuth: An unlikely everyperson who finds themselves embroiled in a mystery and decides to investigate on their own. Nancy Drew is the classic embodiment.
- “Enemies to Lovers”: Adversaries become attracted over time, realizing “there’s a thin line between love and hate.” This trope adds delicious friction. Think Pride and Prejudice or You’ve Got Mail.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: External obstacles like feuding families, social class divisions, or cultural expectations thwart lovers. The Fault in Our Stars puts a devastating twist on this trope.
- Forbidden Love: Social taboos about romance between unlikely pairs—teacher/student, priest/parishioner, etc.—raise the stakes. V.C. Andrews built a career on forbidden love.
- Fake Relationship: Pretending to date leads to real feelings. This trope allows vulnerability to emerge organically between guarded characters. See To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
- Love Triangles: A protagonist is romantically torn between two love interests, upping the angst for all involved. The Hunger Games and Twilight fueled this trope’s popularity.
Science Fiction Tropes
- Alien Invasion: Extraterrestrials attack Earth, usually starting with major cities, in tales serving as metaphors about immigration, colonization, and “otherness.” H.G. Wells’ pioneering The War of the Worlds set the template.
- AI Run Amok: Hubris leads scientists to endow computers with too much autonomous reasoning, leading to logical but dangerous actions when the AI prioritizes self-preservation. See 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator.
- Space Opera: Adventure-driven spacefaring sagas with dogfights, swashbuckling heroes, and sweeping scope. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises epitomize this trope.
- Time Travel Paradoxes: Characters influencing the past create logical paradoxes that threaten reality itself. Time travel theories provide great fodder for mind-bending stories.
- Generation Starships: Cocooned civilizations hurtle between distant stars while generations live and die during the lengthy journey, as in Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky.
Thriller & Suspense Tropes
- The Chased Hero: An ordinary person must escape relentless pursuers. The classic Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest solidified this trope.
- The Race Against Time: Defusing a deadly device, finding a cure, and other ticking clock scenarios crank up dramatic tension. 24 derived its entire premise from this trope.
- The Wrongly Accused Hero: An innocent person is framed for crimes they didn’t commit and must clear their name before time runs out. The Fugitive follows this trajectory.
- Going on the Run: Being relentlessly hunted raises the stakes, whether the heroes are fugitives from the law or pursuants seeking to expose the real villain. The Shawshank Redemption uses this device.
- The MacGuffin: As mentioned earlier under Action-Adventure, a coveted object that motivates the characters while driving the plot. Maltese falcons, briefcases of cash, and secret documents are common MacGuffins.
Young Adult Fiction Tropes
- The Misfit Protagonist: An outsider who feels alienated from their peers anchors many YA stories. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye pioneered this trope.
- The Absent Parent: Removed parents are a convenient plot device to unlock adolescent independence, nurturing bonds with surrogate caregivers. Harry Potter epitomizes this trope.
- The Love Triangle: As discussed earlier, it’s a hugely popular trope in YA fiction, ratcheting up romantic drama. See Twilight’s Edward-Bella-Jacob or The Hunger Games’ Katniss-Peeta-Gale.
- The Mean Girl: Cruel bullies serve as antagonists and represent the dark side of high school social politics. Carrie laid the foundation for this trope.
- Coming of Age in a Harsh World: Teens are forced to mature quickly while overcoming tragedies and external threats. The Hunger Games and Divergent showcase bleak rites of passage.
Beyond genre-specific conventions, there are general archetypes that serve as molds for memorable characters. Here are some of the most common:
- The Underdog: A determined, overlooked protagonist who exceeds low expectations and triumphs against the odds through perseverance. Rudy from Rudy is a quintessential underdog.
- The Chosen One: As described earlier, this character discovers they’re destined for greatness and are burdened with saving the world. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter embody the trope.
- The Antihero: As noted earlier, an unconventional protagonist who lacks traditional heroic attributes and lives by their own code. Rorschach from Watchmen typifies this trope.
- The Heart: The warmth and conscience of a group. Deeply empathetic, they keep the team together.
- The Brain: The intellect who guides the team with knowledge and clever plans. Hermione Granger fills this role in the Harry Potter series.
- The Muscle: Raw power and toughness come in handy when brute force is needed.Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy fits this trope.
- The Rogue: A rugged individualist who prefers to work alone and often has a shady past. Han Solo from Star Wars embodies this archetype.
- The Matchmaker: Meddles in other characters’ relationships, trying to set them up whether they like it or not. Carrie Bradshaw often played this role in Sex and the City.
- The Mean Girl: As mentioned earlier, this spiteful antagonist bullies others and stirs up drama. Regina George in Mean Girls is the quintessential mean girl.
- The Mentor: Wisdom comes with age and experience. This trope describes the older advisor who shares their knowledge. Professor Dumbledore fills this role in Harry Potter.
- The Mad Scientist: Rationality gives way to unhinged obsession. Victor Frankenstein is the grandfather of this trope.
- The Girl Next Door: Approachable, friendly beauty with humble roots. Betty Cooper on Riverdale embodies this girl-next-door trope.
- The Damsel in Distress: A helpless female character who requires rescuing by a knight in shining armor. Though dated, this trope persist in some franchises.
Certain settings instantly convey particular moods, genres, and story possibilities. Here are some archetypal examples:
- The Haunted House: As mentioned earlier, a creepy estate brimming with ghosts and secrets forms the backdrop for countless horror tales. Hill House from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of literature’s most infamous haunted houses.
- The Dying Small Town: The deserted main street and boarded-up shops of a rural town forgotten by time and progress set the stage for melancholy nostalgia and a yearning for the past. Stephen King frequently uses this trope, as in Salem’s Lot.
- The Peaceful Village: Quaint, remote, and disconnected from the modern world, villages evoke pastoral tranquility and folksy charm. The Shire from The Lord of the Rings epitomizes this trope.
- The Abandoned Warehouse: What sinister dealings transpire inside the shadowy ruins of an old warehouse on the wrong side of the tracks? This trope screams illicit activities. Batman often depicts Gotham City’s seedy waterfront warehouses.
- The Futuristic Megalopolis: Densely packed ultramodern cities with flying cars, soaring skyscrapers, and gritty slums represent societies of tomorrow. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis envisioned this setting.
- The Hallowed Halls: Prestigious institutions like Ivy League universities, grand libraries, museums, and courts of law signify repositories of knowledge, tradition, and the machinery of power.
- The Open Road: The winding highway vanishing into the limitless horizon symbolizes freedom, new beginnings, and leaving the past behind. Jack Kerouac mythologized this trope in On The Road.
All stories grapple with core aspects of human experience. Recurring themes provide the canvas upon which the drama unfolds:
- Good vs. Evil: Morality tales about characters wrestling with temptation, sin, and redemption. The eternal battle between light and dark.
- Nature vs. Nurture: Exploring whether people are shaped more by innate traits or life experiences. What determines who we become?
- Order vs. Chaos: Struggles to balance opposing forces like freedom/security, tradition/progress, reason/emotion, individual/society, etc. How much chaos can order contain before breaking?
- Appearance vs. Reality: Subtly undermining assumed truths and exposing the subjectivity underlying conventional wisdom. What is real and what is illusion?
- Technology as Friend or Foe: Chronically ambivalent stories about whether technology improves life or dehumanizes it. Often a parable about playing god.
- Overcoming Adversity: Perseverance through immense hardship allows characters to overcome challenges and cultivate inner strength. The indomitable human spirit.
- The Journey of Self-Discovery: Characters undertake transformative odysseys to understand who they truly are inside and what really matters most to them.
- Love Conquers All: Despite seemingly impossible barriers and obstacles, love ultimately prevails and proves itself the most powerful human force. An ode to romance’s redemptive, life-changing capacity.
This deep dive through the wonderful world of book tropes merely skims the surface of literary devices and conventions across genres. There are countless more tropes to discover, along with limitless ways authors incorporate familiar touchstones while providing fresh perspectives.
Tropes remain integral to storytelling because at their core they speak to universal yearnings, fears, and experiences. By tapping into tropes, writers channel mythic resonances, rich traditions, and the very essence of what makes us human. But putting new twists on old tropes keeps those eternal stories inventive and meaningful for new generations.
Masterful writers don’t avoid tropes but rather embrace the challenge of engaging with tropes in ways that feel nostalgic yet innovative. This balancing act between the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of novelty elevates tropes into transcendent, unforgettable storytelling.