by Heather W. Petty
I am a huge fan of the Korean Drama. It’s possible some of you haven’t experienced the wonder that is South Korean television, and you definitely should. Kdramas are this amazing mix of cheesy oddness, cultural inside jokes we white folks don’t fully get, and gorgeous, cliffhanger-laden storytelling that makes you come back for more again and again. Trust me when I say that it is an addiction you will never regret.
My favorite writers in Kdrama Land are known as the Hong Sisters (because they are sisters, and their names are Hong Jung Eun and Hong Mi Ran), and I think the reason why I love them so much is that they are masters at twisting common romance story tropes.
So, what is a Trope? In storytelling, a trope is an overused theme or device—a narrative cliché. It’s the White Knight and Damsel in Distress, the Bad Boy and the Goody-Two-Shoes Girl who loves him. It’s the “Just kidding! It was all a dream!” ending. It’s a wise, older character who points our protagonist toward the right path (such as Yoda or Dumbledore). It’s the tragic hero, the star-crossed lovers, the Butler Did It; a trope is that character or storyline you’ve come to expect that can make the stories we read a little predictable and safe.
And like clichés, tropes are tropes for a reason. We are used to them. We understand how they are supposed to work. Tropes make watching or reading or listening to stories more comfortable, because we know what to expect. That is obviously why, for the writer, our #1 motto should always be:
Tropes were made to be twisted.
The familiarity of a trope is the perfect way to lure your reader into a false sense of security. Then, if you can twist that trope on its head, you can make your reader stay up until the wee hours of the morning to find out what happens. Twisting your tropes is a great way to create a tension in your work that will keep the reader guessing.
An example of this comes from my most favorite Korean Drama, The Master’s Sun. Kdramas are filled with tropes of their very own, such as the Cold Rich Mean Boy who falls for the Spunky Poor Girl, or the bitter, cold angst that is the Second Male Lead—the man who treats her so well, and loves her so much, but will never, ever get the girl (alas). The Master’s Sun has both of those and more (AMNESIA!!), but it’s the subtle way that the Hong Sisters twist the Knight and Damsel trope that amazed me.
When we start, there is a super wealthy retail conglomerate owner who only cares about money. By some accident, he ends up picking up a hitchhiker one night who is a woman who can see ghosts. Seeing ghosts has basically ruined this woman’s life of promise. She can’t hold down a job, she’s afraid of night and water and sleeping, and at any given moment, a ghost will pop out and scare her, making her a general weirdo that people avoid on the streets. But when a ghost comes at her in the car, she hangs onto our Rich Man and the ghost disappears! He’s her literal savior, in that when she’s touching him she has a moment of freedom from her horrible curse.
He could care less whether she can sleep through the night or not, but when she sees a literal ghost from his past, he decides to use her to retrieve part of his family’s fortune that went missing during a botched ransom attempt when he was kidnapped as a child.
The story goes on from there with her putting up with his ridiculously mean treatment of her because she’s so desperate for the short respite he can give her and him putting up with her eccentricities because he wants his money back. But over time we start to see her confront her curse. She starts to use her ability to talk to ghosts to help people, and that makes her start to accept who she is and what she can see. She starts to need her Male Savior less and less and trust herself more and more. And by this time we start to realize that he’s the one who needs her. That maybe she’s the one who has saved him from who he might have become without her.
I tried to do something similar with my book LOCK & MORI, though on a different scale. When I first came up with the idea of writing a book about a Sherlock and Moriarty who knew each other in high school, they were going to be best friends and rivals. But the minute I started to think about a Female Moriarty, I got super excited. It gave me the opportunity to flip the Bad Boy/Good Girl trope on its head, presenting a Bad Girl with a Good Boy instead. It was also an opportunity to have a female villain who used her intellect and not her sexuality to create her evil empire, and to make the point that not all advisers who seem wise can be trusted.
There’s honestly nothing wrong with a nice trope-laden adventure story or romance. I really do love them all. But the next time you see a trope pop up in your writing, I’d encourage you to think about how you can twist it. That just might take your story in a direction you never expected.
Heather Petty has been obsessed with mysteries since she was twelve, which is when she decided that stories about murders in London drawing rooms and English seaside villages were far superior to all other stories. She is the author of the Lock & Mori series. She lives in Reno, Nevada, with her husband, daughter, and four hopelessly devious cats. You can visit her online at HeatherWPetty.com.
Lock & Mori
In modern-day London, two brilliant high school students—one Sherlock Holmes and a Miss James “Mori” Moriarty—meet. A murder will bring them together. The truth very well might drive them apart.
Before they were mortal enemies, they were much more…
FACT: Someone has been murdered in London’s Regent’s Park. The police have no leads.
FACT: Miss James “Mori” Moriarty and Sherlock “Lock” Holmes should be hitting the books on a school night. Instead, they are out crashing a crime scene.
FACT: Lock has challenged Mori to solve the case before he does. Challenge accepted.
FACT: Despite agreeing to Lock’s one rule—they must share every clue with each other—Mori is keeping secrets.
OBSERVATION: Sometimes you can’t trust the people closest to you with matters of the heart. And after this case, Mori may never trust Lock again.
Lock & Mori: Mind Games
Sherlock Holmes and Miss James “Mori” Moriarty may have closed their first case, but the mystery is far from over in the thrilling sequel to Lock & Mori, perfect for fans of Maureen Johnson and Sherlock.
You know their names. Now discover their beginnings.
Mori’s abusive father is behind bars . . . and she has never felt less safe. Threatening letters have started appearing on her doorstep, and the police are receiving anonymous tips suggesting that Mori—not her father—is the Regent’s Park killer. To make matters worse, the police are beginning to believe them.
Through it all, Lock—frustrating, brilliant, gorgeous Lock—is by her side. The two of them set out to discover who is framing her, but in a city full of suspects, the task is easier said than done. With the clock ticking, Mori will discover just how far she is willing to go to make sure that justice is served, and no one—not even Lock—will be able to stop her.
Thank you so much Heather for contributing to our ever growing collection of writing advice! There are so many books people would consider “too tropey” or “too cliché” and that can scare writers away. So thank you for reminding us that twisting tropes is a great way to keep a story compelling!
As always, a huge thank you to everyone who has and/or will participate in this feature. You’re helping so many writers and authors succeed and follow their dreams. We appreciate it more than you know.