You and your friends enter a restaurant, hungry and looking forward to a good meal. The name of the restaurant is La Toscana. You are dreaming of a good meal of crostini, gnocchi, and maybe even some tiramisu.
The waiter, looking handsomely Italian with his dark curly hair and eyes, in his white shirt and striped vest, approaches the table and hands out the menus.
You open yours and scan down the offerings and specials for the evening.
Hmmm, prime rib. Not very Italian but… barbecued ribs? What? You scan further. Rice noodles with Thai peanut sauce?
Your friends look at you. You look at them and back at the menu. You close the menu to check the name of the restaurant again. Yep, it says La Toscana.
“I thought this was an Italian restaurant,” you say to the waiter.
“It used to be, but we’re under new management and they just didn’t want to pay the cost of new signage and menu covers.” The waiter shrugs.
Aghast, you and your friends get up and leave. Why? Because if you go to a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, that is what you expect to be able to eat.
The same is true for readers of genre fiction.
They purchase a genre novel expecting a certain type of story. If, after the first few pages, that’s not what they read, chances are the book is closed (or thrown against the wall), and the reader will probably never pick up a book by that author again. It’s a matter of trust. And the author broke trust by not meeting expectations.
Those expectations are tropes. A trope is defined as a familiar and repeated symbol, theme, style, or character, often particular to a certain genre or type of literature. Tropes are also sometimes plots or events.
If you write genre fiction—that is, fiction that fits into a category—then it is important that you meet the expectations, use the tropes of, that category.
Genre fiction categories include science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, Westerns, action and adventure, and horror. Within each of these categories are subcategories—for instance: romantic suspense, urban fantasy, dystopian science fiction. All of which set up expectations in the reader.
Some of the tropes you might expect in a mystery are the red herring, the dirty politician, the incompetent or crooked cop. In fantasy, you might expect to read about dragons or fairies or a secret legacy. In romance, in addition to the happy ending, you also might find the secret baby, or the marriage of convenience, or a character’s dark past. If those elements, and/or others, are not present, your reader will feel like you in that not-Italian Italian restaurant, frustrated, betrayed, and ready to throw something.
The challenge for the writer is to use the gift or framework of the trope while also adding her own unique twist and elements to it. Just because someone expects to find gnocchi on the menu doesn’t mean that your gnocchi dish has to be the same as everyone else’s. You could serve gnocchi with a sage butter sauce, or gnocchi in a red sauce, or butternut squash gnocchi.
Once you are familiar with tropes, you can also twist them or blend them. Cross-genre, or genre-bending, is a result of pulling elements from one genre and combining them with elements of another. For instance, many romance subgenres come from mixing romance with elements of Westerns, mysteries, or fantasy.
Or think of the genre-bending Oscar-nominated movie The Shape of Water. You have romance, suspense, fantasy, and even a bit of the historical since the movie is set in the early 1960s.
Don’t think of tropes as limitations but rather as ingredients. Just like you need chocolate to make brownies (at least my kind of brownies), you need a murder in a mystery, or a future setting in a science fiction.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of room for your own personal additions and twists to whatever you’re cooking up.
Whatever genre you choose, remember to honor the genre’s tropes.
Then your reader will not only enjoy that book, but buy the next one you write.
Because she can trust you as the author to live up to her expectations.
Paula Chaffee Scardamalia, former dream consultant for PEOPLE Country Magazine, is an author, book coach, and dream and tarot intuitive. She has taught at small private workshops on the East Coast, at national and regional Romance Writers of America conferences and meetings, and at the 2014 San Diego University Writers’ Conference. Paula publishes a weekly e-newsletter on writing, dreams, and tarot, and is the award-winning author of Weaving a Woman’s Life: Spiritual Lessons from the Loom. She is currently under contract and at work on her book on tarot for fiction writers.