What's the difference between genre conventions and tropes?
Do all conventions count as tropes? Or not?
If you've ever asked these questions, you're not alone. A lot of the writers I work with feel confused about genre conventions and some of them even worry that by including certain genre conventions and tropes, they're going to write something predictable and cliche. Can you relate?
In today's post, I’m going to explore the difference between genre conventions and tropes and hopefully clear the air on some of the most common misconceptions.
But first, let’s go over some definitions so that we're all on the same page...
Genre conventions are story elements such as character archetypes, key events, and settings that are commonly found in a specific genre.
These conventions not only define each specific genre but also define the reader’s expectations of a story in that genre. So, for example, if a reader picks up a romance novel, she will have different expectations for that story than she would if she picked up a horror novel, right? And that's because each genre has a specific set of conventions and obligatory scenes that make it work.
And these obligatory scenes and conventions are objective, meaning that they need to exist in a story to give it shape and to make it “work” according to the genre guidelines.
Here are some examples of genre conventions:
Now, in each of those examples, I want you to notice that I didn’t say anything too specific. For an action story, I said that readers will probably expect to see a mentor figure, but I didn’t say what kind of mentor or who the mentor had to be. It’s just a very objective role that you need to fill and that role has a very specific purpose in the overall story.
So, I want you to keep that in mind as we talk about tropes...
Tropes are a specific way of delivering or presenting genre conventions or obligatory scenes in your novel.
So, to continue with our example of a mentor figure in an action story, let’s think about all the ways you could present a mentor figure in a story. You could have an old man with a long white beard, or an anti-social hermit who lives in the mountains and lives off the land, you could have an eccentric middle-aged mentor who wears crazy clothes and speaks in riddles, or you could have a mythical creature or child act as a mentor.
These specific ways of presenting genre conventions in your story are what I consider tropes -- they’re subjective interpretations of a convention.
If your genre calls for a mentor, that doesn’t mean he has to be old and have a long white beard. You can literally do whatever you want as long as you satisfy the convention. In fact, this is how you make your story unique -- by satisfying the conventions of your genre in a fresh or unexpected way.
Now, let's consider what would happen if you left the mentor role convention out of your action story -- readers would probably miss having someone fill that role. And not only that, but the function the mentor serves in your story wouldn’t be met. So, without a mentor, who is helping your protagonist, learn, grow, and change? Who is there to point out what’s right and wrong to your protagonist? Or to show them the ways of the world? Or to provide assistance?
This illustrates something I think is really, really important when you’re thinking about genre conventions versus tropes.
Genre conventions usually have an objective reason WHY they exist in a story while tropes usually do not.
So, genre conventions need to be met in order for your story to work and to satisfy readers' expectations. But the way you deliver those conventions, or the tropes you choose to use, is totally up to your imagination and discretion.
And on that note, it’s important to realize that some people love certain tropes, while others find certain tropes tiresome and cliche.
If a certain trope is used too many times in a specific genre -- like the wise old mentor with the long white beard -- it can start to feel tiresome or cliche because readers see that convention delivered in the same way so often. But on the other hand, certain readers won’t care if there’s a specific trope included in many stories because they just love it and want to see more of it. Personally, I love a wise old mentor with a long white beard -- it doesn’t bother me. But, it might bother other people. You just never know.
Here are a few more examples of conventions being presented as tropes:
So, now that we’re hopefully clear on the difference between genre conventions and tropes -- or at least how I like to look at them, let’s talk about some common mistakes I see writers make when it comes to tropes and conventions.
And this is a mistake because like we talked about earlier, genre conventions are what help us write a story that works -- they help us satisfy the expectations readers have of books in our chosen genre.
What usually happens in this scenario is that writers choose to ignore genre conventions and then end up with a story that doesn’t work and doesn’t fit in any genre. Then they query agents and their story gets rejected because it doesn’t work or fit in any of the genres. It’s actually kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As an example, romance novels tend to get a bad rap because people think they’re predictable, largely due to the fact that to write a true romance, you need a happily ever after ending. When you think about a romance novel, you might think of things like a couple, a meet-cute, some kissing or physical intimacy, something that breaks them apart, a grand gesture, and a happily ever after ending, right? Well, these things aren’t predictable, they’re expected by publishers and fans of the genre. People read and watch romance stories for the HEA and they’ll feel robbed or cheated if it isn’t there.
So, just remember that the obligatory scenes and conventions of a genre are there for a reason -- they’re there to help you write a story that works. Most readers not only expect them, but they really like them, too! That’s why they keep going back to books of the same genre in the first place.
And this is a mistake because if you don’t know why you’re putting something in your story then, it probably shouldn’t be there.
What usually happens in this scenario is that writers look up a list of genre “tropes” and then just put them in their story hoping it will have the desired effect on readers. But the truth is that this strategy doesn’t usually work -- and that’s because, as I mentioned earlier, tropes don’t have a reason WHY they should be in a story. For example, there’s no reason why you need to include a grizzled old mentor with a long white beard in your action story. However, you do need to abide by the convention that says your protagonist needs a mentor. Do you see the difference? A mentor serves a purpose, an old mentor with a long white beard will feel forced if that specific presentation is not organic to your story.
So, just remember that tropes are sometimes a specific way of delivering a convention, but other times they are just completely arbitrary things that have either been done a lot or that readers of a certain genre just like to see.
When in doubt, always make sure you understand why something’s being included in your story so that you can avoid including random things just to tick the box that someone says you need to tick.
And this is a mistake because it usually leads to analysis paralysis.
In this scenario, a writer has looked up lists of tropes or genre conventions or character archetypes, and then they’ve compiled all of these lists into one giant list with very specific things they need to include in their story. This is kind of similar to the second most common mistake that we just talked about, but it’s a little more extreme because the writers who fall into this trap make conventions and tropes far more restricting than they need to be.
As an example, I’ll tell you about a writer I worked with last year. She had a list of obligatory scenes and conventions for her genre, she had the stages and archetypes of the hero’s journey, and a list of tropes from tvtropes.org. She had compiled all of this into one document and came to me saying that she was having a really hard time making it all work.
And the reason she was having trouble is because it’s just too much “stuff” to consider that doesn’t all necessarily need to be considered. So, for example, if she had stuck with either the hero’s journey stages and archetypes or the genre conventions and obligatory scenes, she probably would have had a much easier time. In theory, both of those methods would have probably resulted in a similar enough story. But her mistake was thinking she had to combine all of those AND include a bunch of tropes in her story. It was just too much and not all of it was really relevant.
So, if this sounds like something you're doing, then my main piece of advice is don’t feel like you have to follow every rule in every book. Pick one method that works for you and get the first draft down. Otherwise, you’ll end up like the writer I just mentioned -- ten years down the road you’ll still be pondering these different methods and tropes and you’ll never accomplish anything.
So, those are the top three mistakes I see writers make when it comes to genre conventions and tropes. And now that you know about these common mistakes -- and you know the difference between genre conventions and tropes -- you might still be wondering…
And the answer is no, of course not. It’s your story and you can literally do whatever you want. But, if you really don’t want to follow the guidelines of your genre then I’m going to encourage you to be super realistic about your goals.
For the most part, if you’ve chosen to write genre fiction, you need to produce a story that’s going to satisfy readers of that genre. And that means you need to give them what they’re expecting to see -- so, all of the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre.
If you write a book that veers too far away from readers' expectations of the genre, yet call your book that specific genre, you’re going to disappoint them. And readers don’t usually make a habit of buying books from authors who disappoint them.
Genre conventions make things both easier and harder for writers. On the one hand, they give you a framework to write your story in. Especially, when you’re working on your first draft.
These conventions and obligatory scenes suggest “natural” beginnings, middles, and endings -- as well as points of conflict, settings, and characters that make up a story in a specific genre. For some writers, this kind of genre framework helps them feel more creative and get their first draft written.
If you really want to master your genre, you need to first know what’s expected from your genre -- those obligatory scenes and conventions -- and then deliver them in a new and interesting way.
So, learn the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre and use them as a framework for your story. Inside that framework, you can take what you need from the traditional “rules” of the genre and innovate them by adding your own preferences, experiences, values, worldview, etc. Do that and you’ll have no trouble writing a story that works!
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