Top Tropes

This month we asked our librarians what their favorite narrative tropes are!

A trope is a commonly used theme or plot device. Check out TV Tropes for some incredibly specific examples or the library database NoveList under “Browse By” –> “Themes.” for a less exhaustive, but more manageable list.

Some of my favorite tropes are:

Unreliable narrator – Sometimes you know they’re not telling the truth, or the whole truth, and sometimes you have no idea they’re unreliable until it’s revealed in a shocking twist. I don’t want to give examples because knowing that a narrator is unreliable is so often a spoiler!

Time Slip – When the characters move from one time period to another, like in many of Susanna Kearsley’s novels such as The Winter Sea.

Chosen family – There’s something very satisfying about people cobbling together a family in an untraditional way. A great recent example is the newly-released City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Band of survivors – Very common in post-apocalyptic books like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, or shows like The Walking Dead and Lost.

New in town – I’m a sucker for any story in which someone moves to a new place and has to make friends and start a new life, or moves back to their hometown to start over. This trope is common in regular fiction and romance. A few examples are The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins, and The Best Man by Kristan Higgins.

Forced proximity – A romance-specific trope in which people are kind of stuck together, like at a weekend house party in the country, or maybe someone gets injured while out walking and has to recuperate at the nearest house like in Mary Balogh’s The Proposal.

Anything speculative, anything with time travel (historical or future). Examples: Doctor Who, Russian Doll, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, My Real Children by Jo Walton, Here And Now And Then by Mike Chen, Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines.

Reality that’s slightly off-kilter; our world but different. Examples: Greenglass House by Kate Milford, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Slade House by David Mitchell, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

Books about books, and fairy tale retellings/twisted fairy tales. Examples: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, anything by Neil Gaiman or Kelly Link or Kelly Barnhill, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

One of my favorite tropes is when girls or women dress up as boys or men in historical fiction to accomplish their goals for adventure. L. A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series (YA) and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife are examples.

I really enjoy historical fiction that focuses on marginalized communities.  They’ve always been around, but well researched novels that give you a sense of what life was like for these communities is always fascinating.  Sarah Waters novels are especially great for this.

What are your favorite tropes?  Let us know in the comments!

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