Give A Writer Enough Trope
And They’ll Hang Themselves

By PJ Parrish

I was an English literature major way back in college and I now am going on record that not once did I ever encounter the word “trope.”

Now it’s possible I might have dosed off during my 8 a.m. Post-Colonial British Literature class and missed it. But all these decades later, I can safely say that the word “trope” has never taken a front seat in my writer brain. Motif. Theme. Allegory. Irony. Even synecdoche I can remember. But trope…nope.

Yet I’ve run across the word at least six times in recent months, usually in book and movie reviews, which forced me to the Google machine to find out what the heck I’ve been missing. So, to save you the trouble…

literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, 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.

I added the red there because that second definition sort of pissed me off.  One of my pet peeves is when a perfectly good word gets corrupted by misuse and comes to mean both sides of something, and thus means nothing.  Examples:

Hellacious. It began life as college slang in the 1930s, a combo of “hell” and “bodacious” and it was used as a negative. “What a hellacious storm!” Now, it can mean either good or bad. Which renders it impotent.

Fulsome. It used to be negative, starting out (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) as “filling” then “tending to cause nausea,” then finally “wearisome from excess or repetition.” Now, I guess because “full” sounds good, it has come to be misused as “generous.” The beloved professor received fulsome praise. A good word gone to meh.

Okay, okay, I am being pedantic, I know. English is a gloriously elastic language. “Girl” was just a young lady once, then it became a sort of pejorative, to put women down or even men, as in “You throw like a girl.” But of late, women have (thankfully, I say) reclaimed it as a power badge. And then there is the word “fizzle.”  We use it today to mean something just sort of peters out, right? In the 1500s, it meant to silently pass gas. Which is now called “crop dusting.”

But I digress. Back to trope.

As I noted above, it has two divergent definitions. At its best, a trope is a time-honored technique or classic theme. Good literary tropes honor genre traditions. At its worst, a trope is a cliché, something overused that shows a lack of original thought.

Now I for one, think “genre” itself is not a dirty word. I think of crime fiction the same way I think of ballet. (I spent 18 years as a dance critic). In ballet, there are only FIVE arm positions and FIVE foot positions. Everything in ballet emerges from that.  Yet from that tight formula came love stories as old as Petipa’s romantic “Swan Lake” to the new of George Balanchine’s abstract “Agon.”

We crime dogs honor the formulas of our genre, yet the best of us, like Balanchine, color outside the lines. But here’s the point of all this: As you ponder your plot and characterizations, the hard part is distinguishing between what is a good and useful trope of our genre and what is just tired cliché. Let me give it a try and then I hope you all will weigh in, please.

Bad Clichés.

The Alcoholic Detective or Cop. This is an attempt, I think, to show that the protag has a hard job or worse, hates his job. Or it’s a lazy stand-in for “tortured past” or “deep soulfulness.” Bull hockey. Now, we were guilty of this our in my first mystery, Dark of the Moon. We had our protag Louis Kincaid hitting the cheap brandy way too often. I don’t think we realized way back in 1998 that it was a cliche, but there it was. To our credit, we built on this and had Louis recognize his fault, especially when a child entered his life. If you are going to use this, it darn well be part of a very believable character arc. Teresa Schwegel created a great portrait of cop Samantha Mack in her 2005 Edgar-winning debut Officer Down.

Eager Rookie Assigned to Bitter Veteran. Way back in 1976, Clint Eastwood grumbled about being teamed up with noobie Tyne Daly who is, gasp! also a woman. (Dirty Harry: “If she wants to play lumberjack, she’s going to have to learn to handle her end of the log.”)  And of course, the rookie always ends up teaching the burned-out cop a valuable life lesson. (Or she gets offed. To his credit, Harry felt really bad about this). I’d steer clear of this one unless you’ve got a really fresh slant.

The Cop or Detective With Bad Marriage or Alienated Kid. Yeah, law enforcement is tough on relationships, but this has been done to death. In the hands of a great writer (think Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River), it’s deeply knitted into the plot. But don’t use this as a crutch to slap a veneer of emotional depth on your protag. I’ve seen veteran writers who should know better stumble with this one. Oh, and the divorced cop always seems to find a new hot woman to save him.

The Dumb Sidekick. A sidekick is a very useful plot device, as it gives your protag someone to talk to (dialogue is action!) and bounce ideas off. I wrote a post about creating good sidekicks a while back. Click here. But a clueless foil, put there just to make your protag look clever, contributes nothing. At best, these secondary characters should have talents and life experiences of their own. Think Spenser’s friend Hawk, McGee’s cerebral Meyer or Elvis Cole’s sociopath Joe Pike who was so cool he got his own book. And yes, we could spend a whole post here debating whether Watson is really as dense as he sometimes seems.

Good Tropes. (These are purely my taste!)

Creepy Settings. I am a sucker for anything decaying, neglected or isolated. (My favorite Nancy Drew was Clue in the Crumbling Wall). Whenever Kelly and I begin a book, we think hard about the setting, almost always leaning toward the neo-gothic.  In An Unquiet Grave, we trap Louis in tunnels below an abandoned insane asylum. In Heart of Ice, it’s a ruined hunting lodge on Mackinac Island. In Island of Bones, it’s a remote private island in the Florida Gulf, peopled by a family time has left behind. I think I was influenced by Daphne du Maurier’s stories, especially Don’t Look Now, a chilling tale of a father who keeps seeing his dead child running through the dank alleyways of Venice. (Made into an eerie movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.)

Trouble in Paradise. Ah yes. Everything is beautiful, until it’s not. Agatha Christie might have started this trope when she sent Poiret on a cruise down the Nile. But this idea has been recycled with great freshness, notably by Ruth Ware in The Woman In Cabin 10. One of my favorites is Noah Hawley’s Edgar-winner Before The Fall, wherein a picture-perfect family departs Martha’s Vineyard in their private plane and only a down-on-his-luck painter and a little boy survive a crash into the ocean.

Coming Out of the Fog. This is a classic in medias res opening. A character wakes up in a place they don’t recognize. How did they get there? Why are they there? There is a feeling (vague or real) of peril. And of course, getting out is what sets the plot in motion. Sometimes the character has no memory, or can recall an abduction, being drunk or in an accident. I ventured close to cliche with She’s Not There, wherein my protag wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. And it took a lot of plot effort and thought to backstory to make it work. Tread carefully here, but it can be a really great way to fast-break your story from the gate.

Over at GoodReads, they’ve got their own list of classic tropes and some good examples of current cirme fiction under these categories:

  • The Locked Room.
  • We’re All Trapped Here Together!
  • Help! These Kids Are Creepy
  • I Think My Spouse Is Out To Get Me
  • The Inheritance Plot

And last, we have to deal with…

The Unreliable Narrator. Okay, I recognize its lineage: Poe begat Roger Ackroyd who begat Holden Caulfield who begat Teddy Daniels who begat Amy Dunne who begat legions of liars.  But I’m tired of the trickery. Trope or cliche? What say you?


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

34 thoughts on “Give A Writer Enough Trope
And They’ll Hang Themselves

  1. Kris, I’m laughing too hard to comment on your questions, but I blame you for that. I pride myself on keeping up with contemporary slang but I had never encountered “crop-dusting” as an alternative term for an SPD (“silent but deadly”). If the particular act of passing gas isn’t silent — and sometimes you just don’t know ahead of time — maybe it should be called “carpet bombing.”

    Thanks for a terrific post.

  2. In crime shows, I find the following character types to be increasingly common and cliched:

    -The female cop or detective who is attractive, smart, and good at her job but never has a romantic partner or social life. (Yet, she bonds easily with crime victims.)

    -The crooked, cynical, or otherwise damaged cop whose “save the cat” trait is his empathy for and kindness to children. (This type of cop is always a male.)

    -The interviewee who dispatches cops after answering one or two questions with statements like: I’m done talking to you because I have to go back to work now/pick up my son from school/serve meals at the homeless shelter. Immediately, either the interviewee leaves or the cops leave.

  3. Another synchronicity post — just yesterday I got a newsletter announcing a sale of a backlist title from a popular romance author, and I’ve noticed she always gives “trope alerts” when she’s talking about her books. Romance readers, apparently, want to know what they’re getting. For this one, she said:
    Trope alert:
    Marriage of Convenience (literally!)
    Opposites Attract
    Uptown Girl

    • That’s amazing, that it’s actually part of her marketing plan. Huh…romance writers are, indeed, a breed unto themselves.

  4. Thank you, PJ! Great analysis to spare us from clichés! Especially love your ballet clip to illustrate the almost-infinite possibilities contained within a tightly structured set of rules/boundaries/limitations.

  5. Kris, you really tickled my funny bone with your humerus post (snort!).

    If you live long enough, you can trot out favorite cliches from your youth and try them on younger generations. If they’ve never heard the cliche before (and they usually haven’t), they think you’re pretty clever for an old gal/guy.

    “…when a perfectly good word gets corrupted by misuse and comes to mean both sides of something, and thus means nothing.” I couldn’t agree more.

    Thanks for laughs to start the day.

    • I just got back from playing pickleball. I have a visor my sister made for me that says “Member of the Blind Squirrel Club.” Because when I started out, if I made a shot we’d say even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. At least four people at the pickle courts had never heard it!

  6. You know how fashions keep coming back? There was the wide-tie phase, then the skinny-tie, then back to the wide-tie, then… (I don’t know exactly where we are now, but you get the point). I wonder if clichés aren’t like this. I mean, when they first appeared they were a great way to tell a story and characterize. That’s why they were copied and became clichés. But why can’t a writer bring one back? It seems a little “unfair” (for want of a better term) to be limited because something was a tired trope thirty years ago.

    Of course, the obvious answer is, as you put it, a “fresh spin.” I think there are ways to do that, to “design” the trope so it comes at us from a slightly different angle.

  7. If TKZ gave out annual awards this would be nominated for Best Blog Title.

    I agree with your Bad and Good lists. I see trope discussions most often when writers talk about writing to market and meeting reader expectations for a genre. Putting a new spin on an old trope is a fun way to keep within the guardrails yet deliver the twists and reversals.

    Also Terry’s point about romance authors is a good one. I see it more often there where readers like to know which kind of story they’re getting ahead of time.

  8. Great post, Kris.

    As Jim says above, a “fresh spin.” As good tropes become bad cliches, we have to continuously add more layers to our characterization or setting or plot, so that it has a fresh combination of all the layers – so that it is different.

  9. It seems I’ve been encountering the word “trope” a lot lately. (Unfortunately, one of those times was from my editor who was remarking on a scene in my WIP, and she wasn’t using it in a good sense.) When I first saw the word, I thought it must be a new, made-up, 21st century word, but states the origin as “First recorded in 1525–35; from Latin tropus”

    Loved the video of AGON. Definitely not cliche.

    • Yeah, I thought it was a made-up new word like “meme” or bitcoin or wokeness. And I still am not sure what any of those mean, to be honest.

      • Kris, I think wokeness is a word to describe me at 2:30 in the morning, wandering around my house instead of sleeping. Right? Did I get that right? Anyone?


        Enjoyed the post, BTW! I always have to watch my tropes…been hung more than once!

  10. Excellent post! Your examples of poorly used tropes remind me of books I’ve read, and things I’ve written, been unhappy with, then changed for the better. Tweaked tropes can be amazing, though, because the story behind them is familiar, powerful. Totally with you on creepy settings and alienated/damaged relatives, particularly young people.
    How about a firefighter heroine addicted to flames but doesn’t completely admit it until the villain traps her in a crumbling old mine, and sets fire to the wood supports and debris inside?

    • I actually like the arsonist plot! And yes, damaged people are the best fodder for our genre, imho. That goes to the title of my last book, “The Damage Done” (in my case to abandoned kids and folks who take religion to extremes).

  11. I, too, was an English major, but that was ions ago so I can’t absolutely guarantee that “trope” was ever mentioned. A pity I gave my literary dictionary to a library book sale.

    Tropes are neither good or bad, they are just another tool we can use or can’t escape using in our writer tool box. The trick is to make that trope our own. One of my favorite things to do is set up a trope like the arranged marriage which turns into a genuine love story so popular in romance, (Hi, Terrry!), then I twist that expectation. The couple marries because it will allow them to leave together without the local community freaking out about sin, and they swear this is just a business deal so no sexy times. The audience now expects a long, sexually frustrating will-they-or-won’t-they dance around eath other. I got the couple drunk on the wedding night, and they end up in bed. Boom! That still leaves me with the long journey where they have both a meeting of the minds and hearts.

    If you really want to feel bad about the tropes you can’t escape as well as a rabbit-hole experience that will suck up your time like a black hole, check out . It pulls apart tropes down to the atomic level.

    • Exactly right, that the beauty of the best stories are that they take old stories and make them feel new. We respond, subconsciously to the familiar yet are then surprised by the new twist on it. Who said there are only five plots? Can’t recall!

  12. I was also mystified when I first heard trope being used to mean literary device. I heard authors on a panel discussion at a science fiction convention years ago using it and I was mystified. My initial dictionary searches came up empty but I soon figured out what they meant. I resisted using it for years, but finally gave in to the dark side.

    Like Kelly noted in her comment above, I see it being used in discussions of reader expectations and “writing to market.”

    In my own fiction, I tend to think of genre elements (and thus expectations) but always focus on the characters and their stories within that context.

    Thanks for a very fun, informative and humorous post. Made my morning 🙂

  13. PJ, we have a “thing” in common: I was a dance critic for 20 years at The Seattle Times newspaper. Such wonderful years, when the arts were poroperly funded and celebrated.

    • Sigh. Don’t get me started. I was there for the golden age when the NEA was funding all the great companies and the good regional ones to tour. So working in South Florida, I was lucky to see almost every American company and most the foreign ones, including the then-Kirov ballet and Bolshoi. Plus saw and interviewed many of the great stars like Nureyev (late in his career), Baryshnikov, Makarova, Kirkland. Didn’t see Fonteyn but got to interview her. I treasure those memories. Even having to sit through 34 “Nutcrackers” in one two-week stretch. 🙂

  14. Thanks for another enlightening and entertaining article, Kris! I always look forward to your posts and learn so much from them, while having a few chuckles. I agree with your list of good and bad tropes and your suggestion to put an original spin on them to give them new life. But Joe Pike a sociopath? No way!

    • Well, maybe sociopath is a bit strong. But he was definitely a wild wolf. Meyer was my favorite sidekick…always had some fascinating esoterica to toss at McGee.

      • I have a soft spot for Joe Pike – the strong, silent type. He has gone way out of his way to help needy people, for no financial gain, so he’s okay in my books! 🙂

  15. You now, Kris, from my experience those detective things aren’t tropes. They’re real. I don’t know how many detectives (present self excluded) were womanizing alcoholics with dysfunctional families. I worked with one cop whose son turned out to be a serial murderer. Google “Abbotsford Killer”. And the dumb sidekicks were usually the “white shirts” in senior management. Glad I’m out of it and still have my liver, my marriage, and a son who’s a high-functioning commando.

    Now, “crop dusting”. That’s a new one. I’m going to try it out on my wife when she gets home from work and then tell her what the new term for it is. 🙂

    • Oh, I totally agree that the common stereotypes we read in police procedurals are often, tragically, true. I’ve got cops in my family and among friends and a couple are pretty damaged folks. I guess the point I was trying to make was that the closer something is to a known reality, the harder you, as a fiction writer, have to work, to make it NOT feel inauthentic. It’s like writing about a well-known place, say like Paris — you should stay away from the “tourist” sense of the city (ie Eiffel Tower et al) and take readers to places they don’t know that reveal a city’s inner heart. Ditto with characters, imho. Of course, we write about broken marriages, alcoholics, and yeah, dumb-as-stump cohorts. The “trick,” as James notes above, is to make the reader feel like they haven’t read something *quite* like your version ever before. This is what agents and editors are always calling for…something “fresh” but that fits the genre. Not easy…

  16. I, too, had to look up the word trope a while back. The definition I found was that it was like an icon or avatar. A word or symbol that, when used, quickly/briefly describes something for us that would normally be done in many more words. For example, When I read about a child running around the yard, a bath towel tied around his/her neck, my mind understand that the child is playing out a fantasy about being a superhero. I never thought that trope was just another word for cliche.

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