Tropes Aren’t Bad. They’re everything.
by Brandon Applegate
It’s funny, the way this whole thing got started. I have a Discord chat with a few other writers, and we were goofing around, and someone suggested we come up with the worst anthology ideas we could. We tossed a bunch of them around, some pretty horrible, before I blurted out “It Was All a Dream: An Anthology of Bad Tropes.” But within the space of a few chat lines, we had already switched from making fun of the idea to discussing the possibilities.
I renamed it later to “An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right,” which is, itself, a little inflammatory.
But this whole experience has changed something in me, both as a writer and as a reader. You will probably imagine I mean that it has altered how I think about tropes, and you’d be right, in part. But it’s bigger than that. It’s everything.
When you’re starting out, you probably don’t know any other writers. Sure, we all eventually find our communities, be they other college students, a local writing group, or a bunch of folks on the internet, but I mean when you first start out. Sitting in your bedroom daydreaming ideas and the compulsion to write them down washes over you. At that moment, it doesn’t have to be “good,” it just has to be.
But there comes a point when you wonder. Because the very next compulsion is to know. Will other people like this? Is it good?
It is at this point that we seek out that first community. Because who better to answer our questions than other writers? And when you walk into that place with those people, all excited and wet behind the ears, that’s when they hand you The Handbook.
It’s not a literal handbook, of course. It’s more of an oral tradition. Show, don’t tell. Delete your adverbs. Only use “said” in dialog tags. Most of these rules are good, as far as rules go. I think it’s less important to rigidly adhere to rules than to be intentional about why and when you break them, and you only learn that by following the rule in the first place. It’s a necessary journey for most. But one particularly insidious rule is this: avoid tropes at all cost.
That one froze me in my tracks.
I was even told at one point not to write ghost stories because they’d all been written.
Cue the sound of engines stalling, silence so loud it rings, the panic of absolute stillness. Now the rules aren’t telling you how to write, they’re telling you what to write. There are some subjects that are off limits, not because they’re too risky or offensive or taboo, but because they’re just not cool. You won’t get in trouble for writing them, so much as you should expect to get eyerolls and derisive comments. It’s passé. It’s been done.
And unlike the other rules that are sometimes good and sometimes minor annoyances, this rule really hurts. Because now you’re going back to all those other things you wrote, those beautiful, freeing, honest little pieces of your soul, and you’re judging them through a new lens. It’s one thing to look at those works and notice that you’ve used too much passive voice, or you’ve phrased some things awkwardly, or used too many adverbs. It’s a whole other thing to look at them and think that these ideas that moved you to write in the first place are trope, done-to-death, cliché—laughable. Oh god. Should I even keep trying?
If you make it over that hump, you’ve got a whole other one to climb.
Let me give you the shortcut.
There’s only one writing rule that, to me, is an actual rule, not a suggestion or a best practice. It goes like this: read.
It sounds ridiculous, but I promise you, that’s the shortcut up the next hill. Read voraciously. Read like your life depends on it. Read your favorite authors and then find out who they read and read those authors. Widen your field. When you do, I hope you’ll notice the same thing I noticed, because it saved my writing career.
Everyone writes tropes.
Yes, even them.
Even the advice-givers who told you not to.
Even the best, most award-winning authors you’ve ever heard of.
And you will, too. There is no way around it. You’ve been tricked! The advice to avoid tropes at all costs is impossible to follow. Don’t believe me? Google it. There are entire websites dedicated to cataloging tropes, and the lists go on so long as to be seemingly bottomless. They list everything from the dreaded “it was all a dream” trope, through classic monster tropes like werewolves, vampires, ghosts, even specific types of characters and their reactions. There are millions of them. And they make up our stories like atoms make up matter, constantly mutating, rearranging and combining in a billion infinitely diverse forms.
And like those stories, we ourselves are all made up of a wondrous amalgamation of every experience we’ve ever had, every book we’ve ever read, every movie we’ve ever seen. Physically, we are built from matter that existed since the very beginning of the universe. We breathe the same air that was once in Tutankhamun’s lungs.
Stories, like life, and life, like stories, are constantly reusing, recycling, building from the blocks we have to create. It simply cannot be avoided. Pure, pristine originality is a lie.
Now, that last part might seem a little bleak. But if you look at that from a different angle, it’s freeing. If an obstacle is impossible to avoid, then it’s not an obstacle, it’s just the road. With stories, once you embrace the idea that tropes are inevitable, they are no longer a problem to be solved, they’re a toy to be played with, a block to build with. You can take joy in their myriad combinations and subversions.
And, when you embrace it, when you stop worrying about what is impossible, and start looking at what is possible, the really good stuff starts to happen. We all are a combination of reused things—but they have never been combined like this before. In that way, we are totally unique. Nobody has ever been you, nor will there ever be another you again.
In that same way, any story you create is made up of tropes, clichés, and recycled phrases. Sure there’s a werewolf in it. Sure, there’s ghosts clanking chains in a rickety old mansion. But the wonder of fiction comes not from the subjects about which you chose to write, but how you chose to do it. Because nobody will ever choose to do it exactly the same way.
In short, what makes your fiction unique, no matter how tropey, is you. Embrace yourself, your voice, your experiences, your style, and originality ceases to be impossible and becomes unavoidable.
And, as I sat at my desk chatting with my Discord friends about the possibilities inherent in an anthology about tropes, I realized that this would be a writer’s anthology. Because this was the message I wanted to get across. Don’t think anybody wants to read your story about a deal with the devil? I beg to differ. Don’t think a lover’s lane slasher can break your heart? I’ve got one that’ll do just that. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted others to see that you can embrace that thing you love, or even hate, even if it’s been done before, and put it on the page in the way that only you can. Someone will love it because you love it. And at the end of it all, when the books have been sold and the reviews have been written, that’s what matters.
BIO: Brandon Applegate is a writer and editor of the upcoming anthology It Was All A Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right coming October 18th, 2022 from Hungry Shadow Press. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and two daughters who have so far failed to eat him.
It Was All A Dream: An Anthology of Bad Horror Tropes Done Right features stories from Gemma Files, Gabino Iglesias, Laurel Hightower, Wendy N. Wagner, and Hailey Piper, and a massive group of new indie favorites like Eric Raglin and Angela Sylvaine, as well as a foreword by Laird Barron. You can pre-order the anthology directly from the publisher at hungryshadowpress.com.