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  • Writer's pictureKristina Elyse Butke

I'm Torn on Tropes

Torn book pages - I'm Torn on Tropes
Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Enemies to Lovers. Grumpy/Sunshine. Slow Burn. Fake Dating. Only One Bed. Found Family.

I'm not sure how long this has been going on, but there's a huge trend in book marketing where people advertise their books via the tropes that appear within them. The idea behind this is that it makes readers quickly identify things that they would like about your book, and entice them to read them.

I don't know when or how this started. Some theories say that labeling books by tropes came from fanfiction websites like Archive of Our Own, whose tagging system allows you to label your fiction with tropes to help make it easily searchable in their vast database. Others say that advertising books based on tropes came out of the romance genre (and I certainly see it frequently with romances!).

Tropes are advertised heavily on websites like TikTok. Here's a video of BookTok wunderkind Alex Aster advertising her YA fantasy novel solely on tropes (you gotta pause her video right at the end to see them; they're literally there for a millisecond):

There are also graphics that I've seen on social media (like Twitter) that follow a formula (usually with tons of arrows pointing to the book, like this). Here's an example for Edith Lalonde's book Chasing Grace (source):

Book marketing graphic of Chasing Grace featuring tropes in the novel

Another one that I found on Twitter (source) very deliberately goes straight for the tropes. Heads up on this picture--I tweaked the image a little. The graphic on the right that lists the tropes comes straight from Brianna's Twitter, but I wanted you all to see her book cover (the book is called Wicked Fate) so I added the cover and turned her graphic into a collage.

Book marketing graphic of Wicked Fate featuring tropes from the novel

I've also seen trope ads for YA (but of course, for this article, I couldn't find them) and then here's one for a fantasy novel that I found (source), Jenelle Schmidt's Second Son:

Book marketing graphic for Second Son featuring tropes from the novel

I'm not sure how I feel about this!

Years ago, I was really into the website TV Tropes, which offered deep dives into the tropes that appear in a wide variety of media. You can search by trope or search by TV, movies, anime, comics, books, etc. It's publicly edited and quite expansive, and once you go there, it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole. So I would do research for books and eventually I'd find myself there.

A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. [...]
Tropes are not the same thing as cliches. They may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience.
It's pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes.

I think the key thing to look at is the phrase "tropes are not bad, they are not good." Because the thing is, I always heard that tropes were kind of bad because of how close they wandered into cliché territory, and an overreliance on tropes indicates that your plot or characters may be flimsy. Because of these warnings, I always felt like I had to stay away from them where possible.

And I've seen some criticism from readers on Twitter about tropes--can you see the recurrent theme?

  • "As soon as someone starts describing a book through tropes instead of an actual plot I know to never ever read it" (Source)

  • Re: BookTok recommendations: "Another reason why their recs are so fucking terrible is because instead of looking for plot they look for tropes" (Source)

  • "Don't tell me the tropes I want to know THE PLOT" (Source)

  • Re: authors using tropes to market their books: "the problem is not the marketing, the problem is that their books end up being just lists of tropes with no real plot or substance" (Source)

On the other hand, one could argue that tropes are shorthand for what happens in a book, so they can still reveal to readers elements of plot!

And another way to look at tropes is to view them as archetypes. And all over social media, people have defended tropes, like in this tweet (go ahead and click "read the full conversation on Twitter" because the whole thread has some good nuggets in it):

Seeing how effective tropes have been with connecting readers to books, I have warmed to them. And I think when my books come out, I'll probably make graphics like the ones I've shown you above.

But the thing is, I never deliberately sat down to write a book and go, "I think I'll include tropes X, Y, Z" (although some authors have built books completely around tropes, like Ali Hazelwood). Some of them popped up on their own...and as TV Tropes says, it's impossible to write a story without tropes. So I know they're in my books, like Son of the Siren...but I'm kind of scratching my head trying to find them.

Here's what I think I have so far:

  • Friends to Lovers

  • Only One Bed

  • Shapeshifter/Animal Companion

  • Fairy tale retelling

  • Gender-swapped fairy tale

  • Impossible Curses

  • Horny, Morally Ambiguous Fae

And...I can't think of any more. Well, actually, I can--I have probably what would be qualified as Insta-love (which many people hate) and Evil Stepmother (which other people also hate). But I'm writing a fairy tale that's retelling two specific fairy tales, with aesthetics from a third, and those things are part of the fairy tales I selected! But I probably wouldn't advertise these two tropes because again, people don't really like them (per feedback from my beta readers/crit partners).

I think it will be a challenge for me to advertise my books with tropes because I've got to select juicy ones that will entice readers (Only One Bed seems to be my best bet)...but as long as readers are gobbling up tropes and looking for books specifically to fill their trope desires, I'll give it a go!

Readers, what do you think about tropes? Do you seek out books for specific tropes?


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