Ah, tropes: when you start reading through a submissions pile, you start to acquire pet peeves, and you start to notice overused tropes. Now, tropes become, well, tropes, because they’re useful. They get a job done. But if you’re a new writer, using one thoughtlessly is going to out you!
I’ve been reading the submissions pile at F&SF for about a year now, and here are the most common ones:
Character describes herself in a mirror
What does your character look like? Maybe she should take note of herself in the hallway mirror, or while brushing her teeth. Thing is, this is almost overdone. So be aware of that and try to do something fresh with it.
It Was All a Dream!
On it’s face, this is just lazy: get to a brick wall in the plot? Instead of working it out, TWIST! The character was dreaming! If you want the reader to toss the book across the room or set it on fire, do this.
Women in Refrigerators, or “Fridging”
This one requires some explanation. Fridging is when a female character dies/ is treated brutally for the sole purpose of inspiring the male hero to action. It happens often. The death of Gwen Stacy in the original Spider Man is a good example. Gail Simone talked about this phenomenon in comic books:
An important point: This isn’t about assessing blame about an individual story or the treatment of an individual character and it’s certainly not about personal attacks on the creators who kindly shared their thoughts on this phenomenon. It’s about the trend, its meaning and relevance, if any. Plus, it’s just fun to talk about refrigerators with dead people in them. I don’t know why.
*As a subcategory to this, I’d add: violence towards women. I’m surprised by how many stories open with a violent rape. Female protagonists don’t need to have sexual violence in their past as a motivating factor, but it’s very common in fiction and kind of disturbing to me. Chances are you’re not writing the next Jessica Jones, so don’t shoehorn a past rape/ harassment incident if something else will do. Remember, you’re trying to make a whole, human character, not a bowl of soup.
Stories that start with characters waking up
Face it, you can’t top the master:
One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.
Don’t try unless you’re a super hero.
(Original post Oct 2016, updated Feb 2018)