Tropes for Fiction Writing with Jennifer Hilt

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Tropes for Fiction Writing with Jennifer Hilt – How To Write the Future podcast, episode 94

“I’m trying to be creative and original and all that and so I was like, thinking, yes, but how come we need to have these words in common in order to build a story?” 

In this episode of How To Write the Future, podcast host Beth Barany talks with USA Today Bestselling author of The Trope Thesaurus, Horror Trope Thesaurus, and Trope Thesaurus Romance, Jennifer Hilt. Together they delve into the how, why, and when to use tropes, plus discuss using them to help build your story.

Platforms The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Buzzsprout | Spotify | Podcast Addict |Amazon Music | Youtube


Jennifer Hilt is a USA Today Bestselling author of The Trope Thesaurus, Horror Trope Thesaurus, and Trope Thesaurus Romance. Her most recent project, Trope Thesaurus Fantasy and Science Fiction has an active Kickstarter Campaign. She has written twenty-four books across four pen names plus her urban fantasy series: The Undead Detective.

With degrees in linguistics and literature, Jennifer loves talking about story development. She also collects dictionaries in unfamiliar languages, binges scandi-noir series, and shouts out tropes from the comfort of her couch.






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About the How To Write the Future podcast 

The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

This podcast is for you if you have questions like:

– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?

– How do figure what’s not working if my story feels flat?

– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?

This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.

Transcript for Tropes for Writing Fiction with Jennifer Hilt 

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to How to Write the Future podcast. I’m your host, Beth Barany. I am a novelist and writing teacher and host of this podcast. And I’m here today to talk to you about tropes. I’m so excited to introduce my expert to you in a moment. But for right now, just want to let you know that How to Write the Future podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive optimistic futures because I believe that when we vision what is possible for all of us, we help make it so both in our stories, impacting our readers and also in our lives.

So I want to just say welcome to Jennifer. Welcome.So glad that you’re here. 



Thanks for having me Beth.


I’m going to read your bio because it’s so awesome and, so everyone can get a chance to learn a little bit about you. Introducing Jennifer Hilt is a USA.

Today best selling author of the Trope Thesaurus, Horror Trope Thesaurus, and Trope Thesaurus Romance. And her most recent project is the Trope Thesaurus Fantasy and Science Fiction that has completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. 

She has written 24 books across four pen names. Plus, her urban fantasy series, The Undead Detective.

With degrees in linguistics and literature, Jennifer loves talking about story development. That’s awesome. She also collects dictionaries in unfamiliar languages. So cool. Binge’s Scandi Noir series and shouts out tropes from the comfort of her couch. So welcome. So glad you could be here.


Thanks, Beth. 


I want to start off with, asking you to define the word trope because writers may not know what it means And they may also have a negative response to that word. So yeah, tell us what is a trope and why as a fiction writer should we care.


When I started this project, I started it because I was doing a lot of teaching with writing and I discovered by accident that when I was talking with a student about story development, we would struggle for common ideas, and I discovered, Oh, those common ideas that we’re talking about, those are actually tropes, and when I mentioned it, a student would be like, Oh, but I don’t, I want to write a good story. I’m trying to be creative and original and all that and so I was like, thinking, yes, but how come we need to have these words in common in order to build a story?

So that kind of set me on this very long multi-year project of basically, reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on and watching all kinds of things and thinking about what is our common storytelling language across pretty much all genres. And that was when I started to see, in, my all-time favorite books, there were tropes in them.

And this was, like, completely shocking to me, because I also thought, tropes were, like, oh, we shouldn’t. This was probably, five years ago. And at that time, it’s like we hear the word trope like all the time. It’s really popular for us to be talking about it. But at the time it wasn’t so much that way.

I started to think okay, what is a trope, and is a trope the same thing as a cliche or stereotype? And as I started working on these things, I nailed down the ideas that a trope is a commonly understood, definition, meaning. So if I say orphan, everybody knows what that is.

And so these are actually story building blocks because we have them all over, but then, I thought about, there’s different kinds of tropes. And so that led me down a whole other the other thing I understood about tropes besides them being, commonly understood is that I liked that they didn’t have any kind of, positive or negative connotation.

They just were a word. When I started to think about how’s that different than a cliche. Cliches would have like negative meaning to it, like a dumb jock or dumb blonde or gold digger. And, So that was how I was in the process of okay, you can just have these words that are commonly understood that we can use to immediately communicate with the reader, as like story stepping stones, and then go on to how our story is different, unique, specific, et cetera.

And, really trying to stay away from the cliches and stereotypes, which I really just think are not well developed. So that’s how I, in my mind have been able to separate stuff out and then continue in this work. Cause I have this kind of demarcation set up.


Oh, I like that. And I really like what you said about story building blocks. I think that is a very helpful concept. Can you dig into a little bit more how? It’s helpful to writers who are maybe at the beginning stages of writing, maybe they’re planning, maybe they’re writing their first draft, or even when they’re editing in whatever stage of revision they’re at, what is useful about knowing, oh, that’s a trope, or oh, the orphan, or oh, the red herring, or oh, the faster than light travel, or, I’m just pulling from different places, but yeah, how can it be helpful at those different stages?


I think tropes can do a lot of helpful things for us. And I think in building a story, they can give us like a solid story structure, almost like a frame, a framework, or a skeleton, and so we can use tropes to to develop our characters. One reason I’ve started using them, in that way is that it was always hard for me when the people would say what’s your character wearing?

Or what’s in your character’s refrigerator? I needed to be like deeper than that. To understand, like I needed to really know, okay, so what’s the deal with their family? Do they have a family? Do they not have a family? Who’s speaking to who, just all these kinds of things and tropes have helped me do that.

because it gives me like specific things to think of. For example, like secrets, I’m a huge fan of the whole trope secret storyline. I think trope secrets are really like a superpower in storytelling. They give so much motivation. They can be used in all, not just the main characters, but side characters.

They can appear later in the story. There’s all this stuff we can do with them. And, it was just a revelation to realize, Oh, that’s a trope. So what’s this character secret? It takes me some thought to dig around to come around to those things.

Then I’m better able to understand them and I’m better able to be like, okay, this is coming to be a real person, not just a flatter character, which is how in the beginning things are until we keep growing, developing our characters. So I think that it can be really helpful when you’re first starting out in terms of just Outlining. Tropes can be helpful later when you’re looking at it thinking, how else can I show this character better, you know what other things are going on for them, because the important thing to remember with our characters is, they have full lives like we do. And so there’ll be things happening with them that we might not see on the page, or you know in the movie or whatever but we can communicate some of that through their conversations with friends or secrets or, different kind of flashbacks, things like that. 

So all those tropes can help us do all those things.

And particularly there’s a lot of, action tropes that can be helpful with plotting because a lot of times the beginning seems to go well for most of us, but then we’re like, the middle –


What kind of, give me some examples of some action tropes?


So there’s like things like road trip and journey and those kind of things.

Like road trip, I tend to think of as physically like the characters are, on an actual, some type of conveyance getting somewhere and then journey. It can be that, but I also think of it as what’s their emotional arc, how is that working for them and we need to have that in all our characters, but we also need to be able to show it.

And I think tropes are helpful to show conflict like that, one of the favorite ones is the MacGuffin, which is the object and the easiest example is Raiders of the Lost Ark is the MacGuffin. So everybody wants that thing. it seems very obvious, but when you have good characters, it doesn’t matter if the goal is obvious because you’re going to have a lot of conflict thrown in the way to make it hard to get to that goal. 

But it’s really good to know, okay, that’s what the goal is so that we as readers and, the audience isn’t confused, where are they going?

What are they doing?


Yeah. The MacGuffin. Isn’t that from Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon?

Oh, wow. You’ve got balloons that just went up your screen. I was


I’m just sitting here and I saw that too. I’m like, huh? 


Okay, so in the planning stage and the writing stage, how about in the editing stage?

how do you use tropes to help you refine your story?


I think the really biggest part where they can be helpful with editing is pulling relationships tighter. So one idea about that is you may have multiple, of course probably have a very, your cast of characters, but sometimes we end up having too many people and we can condense that out through editing.

So specifically like I’ll use this an example of like horror where a lot of times the villain, the antagonist in horror turns out to be a known person to the protagonist.

And that’s great. I wish that was in more things instead of it being like this person who’s, like a stalker, some vague thing.

It’s like someone who the protagonist holds dear, they tell their secrets, they trust, that person is betraying them. And I think that’s a great way you can use tropes of folding the story back on each other to make it tighter. That’s my favorite thing about that, about, a way to use them as the streamline your cast, I would say.

And what are multiple roles that characters can be playing instead of just having, the proliferation, which is easy to do when we’re writing? But revision is yeah. Revision is a whole other thing,


Yeah. So for example, I don’t know, I’m in revisions right now and my protagonist is in a completely new environment. She’s meeting all these people. And so far I’m on chapter three and she’s met, let’s see, one, two, three, four, five people. We’ve got five new named people that are in addition to her. And so far they feel pretty essential. Yes, at some point, I can hear my critique partners in my head.

They’re like, why don’t you just conflate some of them, and so when you say tropes, you’re like, what if the best friend becomes the betrayer or if the helper? The Helper character, also is a threshold guardian-type character, so that’s an archetype. So this also, yeah.


I find it’s helpful to dump them into the same pot, so to speak, with archetypes because then it’s a big, area to draw out when I’m working on a story.

I don’t generally make a big distinction about, Oh, that’s an archetype. That’s a trope. 

Because mostly people talk about tropes as even if they are an archetype, people are more familiar with the word tropes. And I think the industry uses them so much and we hear them about, for marketing purposes and all this, but I don’t worry about, oh no, I can’t use that. That’s an archetype versus a trope. I wouldn’t think anybody needs to lose me sleep over that. They’re all just storytelling tools. 


Yeah. It feels like building blocks. I wanted to ask about why you love tropes so much. And maybe we can circle back to that because I see you have all these books and you’re successful Kickstarter, and although when we’re recording this right now, it’s still going on, but I already, it’s already a success. What is it about the notion of tropes that you love so much?


I think part of it is. Because I’ve always, even when I was a little kid was interested in stories, of how they were put together, which was I remember thinking, thinking about that, but I didn’t have a very sophisticated way of doing it, obviously.

And then later I studied linguistics, which is oh, okay, that’s another, interesting way to how things are built, but that also seemed very abstract. So then I just get really excited about tropes because I feel like it’s a way of combining a study of story, and so it’s like my kind of need to deconstruct things and how is that put together combined with, oh, an actual, arc and relationships and the kind of awesome muddiness of people, and I feel that’s really the superpower of tropes is that. they’re really about relationships, and that’s why they’ve been around for so long. It’s because we as humans, crave these stories about relationships, and, but we don’t necessarily want real life. I don’t, that’s why I want to read all this other stuff. But they can pull out the essence of what those relationships are, and we can have those, vicarious experiences, but with dragons and in different galaxies, really cool stuff and things like that, as opposed to like the monotony and drudgery of regular life, but I think that’s why tropes have remained important over all these years is because of relationships, of for it to go back for an orphan, yes, an orphan is someone who is alone, but on the other hand, we know that story is going to involve interaction with other people.

And then we’re going to find out why that orphan wound up alone and the repercussions so it’s so much really cool stuff about one concept that’s as simple and as popular as that. There’s so many stories and fantasy and sci-fi, that have orphans in them and yet they’re all different, but they use this same idea.


One of my favorite books as a child, or as a teen someone gave me was called The Lost Prince.


Oh, yes.


Did you read that? It’s written by the same author who wrote Secret Garden.


Oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah.


It was about, I believe a young boy who was the lost prince and he had to secretly make his way across Europe to claim the throne amidst all this danger with his helper.

And It was an adventure. It was about finding his family, finding his rightful place. 

And I don’t know, I was so taken by that story.


And that’s I think a very, well-known, famous one that, if you haven’t read it, then you know of it. And that’s just a, a great example of, yes, that how that could be used.

And then now there’s just so many ways people have twisted those, tropes and to make new stories with that same idea of the orphaned hero wandering, hero, protagonist.


Yeah. It’s a powerful one. I really love how you’re saying that tropes are really all about relationships because stories are a way for people to work out their relationships and to find, almost go from disordered to ordered.

I do. You know, within themselves and with those around them in very specific ways, whether it’s friendships or lovers or, subordinate to the powerful one or, families. 




And I’m writing a fish out of water story. So it’s all like, how do you write a story about someone stepping into a new environment to solve a big secret?

And then along the way, what does she do? She creates a new team to help her solve the mystery. And she steps into her leadership role and it’s like, Oh, she recreates what she loves.


Found family is like a huge as I feel like with fantasy, a huge, and sci-fi huge trope, particular to that because that is so important to those genres.


Yeah, it’s very powerful and I find myself writing it over and over again in different forms for different reasons. It’s so cool. I was going to ask this question that you already answered, which is: what makes a trope? And it seems like it’s something to do with longevity, something that’s been around for a long time.

And when we say it, it evokes a lot of stuff, a lot of ideas, a lot of, expectations, but not in any genre-fixed way necessarily. So how would you answer that? What makes a trope a trope?


Yes, I would say, again, it’s an easily understandable story idea that you can tell a room full of people and everybody’s going to have the basic idea of it.

And then your story will bring to it, your flavorings and shadings. And the other thing that I think is important about tropes is that, is that they’re, endlessly combinable, so like when we talk about the orphan, there’s so many other things that can go with that trope, and so that’s how really we get these fully formed, really interesting characters is by having all these different sides to them. But if you drill down, there’s usually these blocks beneath it that will have trope elements, in them. So I think that this understood idea that people can get right away.

I did a, I recently was, working on an article about the fantasy Fourth Wing, which is, about a young woman and, dragons. And, I think of it as, the Hunger Games with dragons and it’s actually been really popular and I hadn’t heard of it, but the reason why I was interested, is because both my 76-year-old grandfather-in-law and my son’s 26-year-old girlfriend recommended it to me in two days. 

And so I was like, okay, what is this book that has this kind of range, from these various groups? And what was interesting to see with that book, which is like 500 pages, but in the first three pages, there’s 11 tropes and the author just uses them to introduce all these ideas that so you get the idea of, Oh, she’s a warrior, she’s a fish out of water, all these various things that she’s planting the ideas in, the seeds for the reader that are going to be explored through the whole story, but you aren’t starting the story confused, you aren’t like dumping a whole bunch of jargon on them or rules or, like lore or stuff like that, which I think is hard as fantasy, writers, because we were like, we want to tell everybody all our cool ideas, but we need to not overwhelm the reader too, and we want to hook them as much as we can so that we can explore those ideas through the story as opposed to just making them think like I cannot read another name that I can’t even imagine how to pronounce, some people find that really stressful.

So that was just interesting for me to see how this author did it and that she used all these tropes and she would just lay these little groundwork or seeds and then they would be explored later. but they were very combined with each other. So it wasn’t like, Oh, this is a fish out of water, it was really interesting to see how masterfully she did that, and how the response to that, it has 88,000 reviews on Amazon. 




I haven’t seen that many before. it was just interesting to see how she set it up structurally. And then the other thing I liked was at the end, she called back to those.

To those tropes of how things had changed with them or how things were going to, this person really knew what they were doing when they set up the story. And, as you read it, you’re just sucked up in the engaging voice of it. You’re not like, Oh, this is very masterfully developed,


Yeah, It’s a good read. And who knows, maybe she did tons of editing to make that work because beginnings.


Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s not a first-draft kind of thing at all. No.


No, just to bust that bubble I burst that bubble I get a lot of beginning writers who don’t realize how hard writing is and don’t realize that the beautiful book they love so much.

They don’t know how many drafts the author actually did and when they sit down to write and their stuff is not like polished in any sense, they get discouraged. But actually, writers, professional writers, we all go through lots and lots of drafts. How many drafts do you go through when you go through your books.


Many, and in fact, for the longest time, even though I was writing, I was I’m not a real writer because I don’t start at page one. And I go all the way through I would hop around. And then one of my favorite authors once I heard her speak. And she said. 

Oh, yeah, that she writes it was almost like a way of expanding the circle.

So she starts like a kernel and I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s how I worked, so it was so nice, but I always tell people, you don’t have to, start in any specific way, just start and stick with it however, you need to do to get the words down.

But you don’t have to use anybody’s method just kind of take from whatever helps you get through it because it is hard the beginning I think is always exciting so Oh, I have this idea or this character but, it is a lot of work to try to create a whole other world for people with words.


It’s quite a craft and the art of it. It’s wow, how did I do that? That’s amazing. And other people are like, how did you do that? And I did with lots of practice word after word.


I can’t really say how many I do, except a lot because I’m constantly redoing it. So it’s not I start and go to the end and then go, and I do find that I rewrite the beginning more than anything.

So I’ve learned to okay, when I get a beginning that is tolerable, not that I love, but it’s tolerable, to keep moving because I know that I’ll be back to that. Yeah. But even then I still take a lot of time, and getting that set up. 


Yeah, I love that you said that because, I’m the same, my beginnings get rewritten so many times, and I lose track of how many drafts I do. I do tend to go from beginning to end multiple times, but I comb through the beginning for a while usually each time until that starts to gel, and then everything gets to move quicker and then I share it with people and get critiques and get feedback and go back into various spots and so by the time I’m up to draft Revision 10, I basically have lost track because everything is and I just want people to hear that for more than just me. I want my students and my writers, because it’s not, yeah, good. 

Before we get to the wrap-up portion, I wanted to ask you about culturally specific tropes. Because I have heard some people who love certain kinds of anime and other stories coming out of Japan and China they refer to certain kinds of stories with words I’ve never heard of, because they have their own words for stories, I feel like I’m an outsider too, because that’s, aren’t the stories I read, Have you come across that in your research?


Yes, I would definitely say that my research is really based on European, tropes and, folktales and fairy tales, that kind of thing. I don’t really know that much about other cultures other than like the books I’ve read. There’s a great author, a Pakistani science fiction fantasy author, and I’ll have to look up his name so you can put in there. His stories are so interesting because he does write from this, there’s a lot more emphasis on parental, approval and this nature of, loyalty to your family and they’re fantasy stories and they’re fantastic.

But he’s I feel able to tap into that in a different way than perhaps in, the U.S or Western Europe, where we have this very much make your own way kind of thing. 

So I think there’s so much to be done in those areas. I love to watch the Korean, I loved the, the zombie Korean series, Kingdom, because it was just, there was so much in there that I was like unfamiliar with and storytelling and myths and things like that.

And there’s so many other ones out there. So I would say that people could should totally feel free to explore that and there’s, I think, a lot of rich areas to be mined. 

They’re just not things that I feel like I know enough to speak about but absolutely like the storytelling traditions in India and China and Africa, various places that have been. doing this for so long. There’s tons of cool stuff to be looked at there. 


Yeah, absolutely. And this brings me also to this notion of motifs from folklore. I studied folklore at university and my very first talk as a writing teacher. Gosh, 20 years ago was on motifs and just sharing about them.

I was such a new writer and teacher that I was petrified when I gave that talk live in front of a room of writers, like 10, 15, 20 years older than me. But I also recognized motifs. And now as we’re talking about tropes, I’m like, Oh, motifs are tropes. The ogre that eats the kid, the wicked witch or the poisoned fruit, the, I’m like, Oh yeah. 

All these ancient symbols that the singing bird or the tree on legs, like in Baba Yaga.



Oh, there’s so many great ones. I know. I think Oh, maybe we need to like, Go study more folklore, I know.


Yeah, so great. I wanted to end with a little bit for you to tell us what you’re writing and what you’re reading. 


Let’s see, what I’m writing. Right now, I’m revising a story I wrote a long time ago, and so that’s been interesting because I’ve changed a lot since when I wrote it.

Originally. I’m thinking about what do I want to do about that. And yes, many drafts. and then what I’ve read lately that I really loved was, I don’t know if you’ve read, any Cassandra, her last name is K H a w. And she writes some really nice, not nice, but like really good, evocative, dark, urban fantasy fairytale stuff.

I really liked her the dead take the A train, and it’s basically a demon who’s working in New York City. That’s a very popular idea of having a female protagonist working some kind of job in paranormal law enforcement, but her kind of take on it was so felt so fresh to me and I really loved how dark it was. And when I say dark, feel like she’s an author who sees through so many layers and that instead of like this superficial, Oh, this was person was a friend, but now they’re an enemy.

She sees through all the things that make people in there muddiness like I said before, so her characters are very complex but yet somehow very familiar. And so I like her stuff, even though it’s always I wouldn’t say it’s like necessarily uplifting. I really like it.


Is it also urban fantasy?


It’s really more fantasy, with the horror elements. I’ve struck with this idea a long time ago I loved Shirley Jackson, her kind of stories, the horror writer in the early 20th century. And I read her in high school these years ago, and I’d never.

Like I’ve still my mind has been stuck on. I love her to take on what I think of is like domestic horror there’s no blood or guts or things like that, but it’s this kind of chilling all the same. And so her story of the lottery really has always like stuck in my mind.

So I was curious about thinking of something like that. but with a girl whose touch, can discern people’s, greatest shame. And so I’ve just been messing around with that and I need to figure out what I’m going to do. 


Yeah. Really fun. Really fun. And so since this is a podcast about how to write the future, do you have any tips for writers either about anything futuristic or just as they write themselves into their own future, creating a more positive writing environment for themselves or, write themselves into the life they want.

Yeah. Any tips?


Yeah, I think it’s really important, for us to remember There’s always been stories. There’s always going to be stories.

And so too, if you feel the need to tell a story, then tell the story and try not to get hung up with Oh, I don’t know if there’s a market for this or so-in-so going to buy it, or I don’t know how to put it like, those are like future you problems. and if you can just focus on, on getting the work done and staying on the track with that and to not lose heart, because I think there’s a lot of things. A lot of negativity that swirls around, and it’s draining, right? We need stories to recharge us. And so maybe just focus on that, especially if you’re a newer author because it can be, just really hard, all the things you’re trying to learn and then the business aspects and things like that.

And so I think just to honor yourself and what you want to do and worry less about sounding like other people. I think that’s the biggest thing is whatever your voice is needs to be heard. and that can relate to other people and not Oh, this person was really successful. I should try to write like them kind of thing.


I love it. That’s really wonderful. Jennifer, thank you so much. I’m really grateful that I had a chance to talk with you. I’m so excited for your next trope thesaurus book to come out and I look forward to talking with you again. Thank you so much.


Yeah, super fun to visit with you.


That’s it for this week, everyone.

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Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”

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