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Let's talk about tropes, baby! (In-depth guide)

Let's talk about tropes, baby! (In-depth guide) Let's talk about tropes, baby! (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    Wattpad stories span every genre under the sun. We adore the breadth of creativity our users bring to writing, but there are certain genres that we know perform well on Wattpad, as outlined in our Vertical Guidelines.

    That said, commercial does not mean only writing in specific genres. "Commercial" is about an orientation to genre and readership. If we are looking for work outside of these verticals, being strongly Commercial (i.e. grounded in genre and appealing to fans of that genre) is extra important. Commercial also does not mean monolithic. We are super enthusiastic about diverse stories, characters, and creators, especially those interested in our priority genres. 

    Going deeper with tropes

    Here at Wattpad, we are loud and proud trope lovers. Tropes are the backbone of so many Wattpad stories, and readers come back to favored tropes again and again because there’s always something new to find there.

    However, it’s important to think of tropes as tools for storytelling, not the story itself. When you’re working on a new story, it can be tempting to stuff in all the tropes you love. But a story is not just a succession of tropes. It needs internal logic and drive to push it forward, and dimensional characters to inhabit it. We’ll be spending more time on plotting in the future, but for now, here’s an exercise to think about how to more effectively integrate tropes into your stories. 

    Exercise: For a quick guide on building dimensional characters, download our character planning worksheet. Once you’ve got some of that filled out, come back to this.

    What is this trope? Describe the trope. What are its core elements? How do those core elements show up in your story? What might those core elements mean for your characters?

    What appeals to you about this trope? Basically, why do you want to include this? What’s fun about it for you and for your readers? What does it add to the story that you couldn’t get any other way?

    What are the consequences of this trope for the characters? How does this event change things for them? A character who is super conflict-avoidant is going to react very differently to being forced to work with their rival than someone who is fiery and argumentative, which in turn shapes the tenor and progression of the story.

    The goal here is to get specific about how your chosen trope is showing up in your particular story. Remember, effective Commercial storytelling is about mixing the familiar (tropes and genre conventions) with the new (dimensional characters and plots).

    Tropes in context

    As we discussed previously, tropes are recognizable patterns in storytelling that can be used to shape reader expectations for your story. Tropes definitionally exist outside the bounds of any one individual story; they rely on shared cultural context to be identifiable and useful to both writer and reader. But this cultural context can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes, tropes come with negative associations due to cultural context and history, and using a trope can inadvertently replicate or contribute to these negative cultural biases and narratives.

    It’s easiest to talk about this using an example. Let’s look at the “white savior” trope. This is a cross-genre trope in which a story about racism is centered around a white character’s benevolent actions in the face of systemic oppression. The Help, Green Book, and Avatar all use the white savior trope. On the surface, this trope is positive: white people can and should be allies in the fight against racism, and it’s good to depict this struggle. However, the problem comes in the emphasis of this trope. This trope stresses individual white people’s positive actions on behalf of oppressed people of color. Ultimately, the struggle around racism in these stories belongs more to the white people who are the main characters, rather than to the people of color who experience racism. In white savior narratives, people of color do not even get to own stories about their own oppression, and preference is instead given to white people’s feelings and personal growth. Very real experiences of racism and oppression are reduced to a plot device for a white protagonist to react to, and the experiences of racialized people are erased from the story.  It’s important to note here that these stories do not intend to be racist. Indeed, they often aim to depict allyship. But because the writers are emphasizing white feelings over the experiences of people of color, these stories end up reinforcing on a broader level the very system of white supremacy they say they’re critiquing. Authors who use this trope might mean well, but the context and meaning of these narratives overtake the author’s intent. The cultural context is more powerful than the individual narrative, and so the meaning is determined by that context more than it’s determined by the story itself. This is why it’s important to have a thorough grasp of the context of the social issues you’re writing about, especially if they’re not issues that directly negatively affect you.

    Note: The following section contains a discussion of some issues around consent we commonly see in Wattpad stories. 

    Even when we’re working well within our own experience, tropes can sometimes set us up for difficulty because of the implications, intentional or not, that they create in the text. Let’s take a classic Wattpad trope: forced marriage. In the forced marriage trope, the two romantic leads are forced by circumstances outside of their control to marry each other, regardless of their personal feelings. There is usually a high degree of conflict between them: they don’t like each other or want to be married to one another, though sometimes it’s just one person who doesn’t want to be married. This trope is exciting because it automatically introduces conflict into the relationship even as it locks the romantic leads into each other’s lives. There’s a lot of drama baked in! However, the very dramatic appeal of the trope also sets the stage for consent issues in the relationship if the author isn’t careful. Being unable to leave a relationship without serious consequences (either from the other person or from the people around you) is antithetical to good consent, where both parties are able to say yes or no without negative consequences.

    This is particularly intense if there is some expectation in the story that the marriage will be consummated. Another common element of this trope is dependency: one party is dependent on the other for shelter, money, or protection. This creates a power dynamic between the characters where one character is incentivized not to say no to the other because of their material reliance, which once again complicates the consent.  All of these factors can create a dynamic between the characters that is potentially toxic, coercive, or abusive. If your intention is to write a happily-ever-after romance, you’ll want to be more careful around these elements.

    This is not to say you can’t write forced marriage. It’s a fun, spicy trope that can be done super well! But writing it well means attending very carefully to the nuances of the interactions between the characters to make sure it doesn’t cross a line into coercion. At a minimum, making clear that both characters actively desire and are continuously consenting to intimacy is more important here than it might be in romances without this kind of trope.

    All narratives exist within a cultural context that is outside of the author’s direct control. As writers, using tropes is a particular narrative choice we can make that cues the reader to a certain pattern they recognize from other media. Using tropes well is about being aware of the implications they have for your narrative, both within the context of the story and within the context of society at large in order to convey your intended meaning.

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