What’s A Trope?
“I’m not like other girls.” The quote that will live in infamy in the minds of entire generations, especially those that have encountered the cultural phenomenon known as Twilight. But why does this quote have intuitive meaning? How do we have a collective definition of the type of person that would say this? And why do we either admire or despise this quote, with no in between? The answer to these fundamental literary questions lies in the concept of tropes. While many have never heard the term “tropes,” everyone has certainly encountered them in the world of teen fiction, whether on the page or on the screen.
Picture this (and take a deep breath): A teen girl embarks on a harrowing journey with her other outsider, token diversity friends who act as a surrogate family to overthrow a dystopian government ruled by an inexplicably evil dictator meanwhile unlocking her previously unknown “chosen one” magic powers and coping with the traumatic death of her mother and absence of her father, not to mention the entangling love triangle between her flirtatious childhood best friend and one thousand-year-old sworn enemy, as well asdealing with incompetent adult figures, miscommunication and pity-parties because she has to save the world with time travel for some reason. *exhale deeply*
If you recognized any of the tropes (AKA commonly used plot devices, themes and archetypes), then you’re clearly ready to dive into this analysis of the best and worst tropes of teen fiction. But be warned: you’ll never read a book or watch a movie the same way again after you recognize the tropes that drive much of popular teen fiction.
The Best of the Best…:
“The Chosen One” & “Magic Powers”
Everyone loves a good “chosen one” story, which is when a regular person (just like you and me) discovers that they have magical powers and have to save the world. There’s typically some sort of prophecy involved as well, adding to the mythos of the “chosen one” narrative. Katelyn Styborski (11) says, “I’m a sucker for emotionally-tense action scenes and teenagers shooting magic blasts at narcissistic old men. I also love the idea of magic being a part of society.” These tropes are found in the most iconic works of teen fiction like the quintessential Harry Potter book series and cult classic movie The NeverEnding Story.
“Dystopian Rebellion” & “Tyrannical Government”
Another one of the most popular tropes is the dystopian rebellion against a tyrannical government. Everyone wants to identify with the hero that takes down the wicked ruler who has subjugated society. Popularized with the release of The Hunger Games, the dystopian genre took over teen fiction in an instant, edging out the millennial-era vampire obsession. Makayla Henline (11) finds this trope “engaging and interesting” because it “really makes you think about the society we currently live in.” These tropes can be found in the ever-fantastic Hunger Games series and The Fifth Wave movie.
“Parental Trauma” & “Dead Parents/Mentors”
A classic way to launch a character’s journey in teen fiction is through some sort of parental trauma, often the death of a parent or mentor. There’s no better way to pull on people’s heartstrings and get them to empathize with a character than having the character experience a moment of grief or trauma. Plus, the death of a mentor or parental trauma tends to launch the hero into a spiral of righteous vengeance and adds a little spice to what could become an overdone trope. It’s often even a necessity to make the protagonists interesting and leads into many other tropes like “The Chosen One.” These tropes can be found in the Star Wars movies and the Series of Unfortunate Events book series.
“Love Triangles” & “Fake Dating”
The love triangle is possibly as old as time itself and has been used both effectively and horrendously. However, it’s usually done well enough to make it on the “best” side of this article. The fake dating trope is a more recent addition to teen fiction but can be just as well-used to spice up the romance scene and avoid the classic “love at first sight” trope (which is on the worst of the worst list). The love triangle trope can be found in the Kissing Booth movies, while fake dating is easily found in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before novels.
“Enemies to Lovers” & “Thousand-Year-Old Love Interest”
If your friends like these troops, it might be a red flag. Romanticizing falling in love with your sworn enemy? Yikes. And don’t even get me started on the trope that has teen girls falling in love with a thousand-year-old man who looks young–it just gives me super creepy vibes. My opinion, however, is not absolute. Henline actually enjoys enemies to lovers because she “enjoy(s) the slow burn romance vibes and how the relationship of two characters goes through ups and downs throughout the novel.” Henline also believes that enemies to lovers “adds an aspect of unpredictability” to the story. (My recommendation from her: Do n’t walk, but run away from her from her and anyone else who thinks enemies to lovers is anything but yikes). This trope can be found in the book Dance of Thieves and the movie 10 Things I Hate About You.
“Friends to Lovers” & “Found Family”
These two tropes have to be some of my personal favorites, especially when it comes to book series. I love the idea of two childhood friends falling in love with each other and growing old together, or even just two people becoming friends first rather than spontaneously falling in love. And what trope is possibly better than found family, where the main character finds a new or extended family among friends that they meet throughout the story? These tropes are just so wholesome and heartwarming. You can find the friends to lovers trope in the TV series Agents of SHIELD (#FitzSimmons) and the found family trope in the Heroes of Olympus book series.
…And the Worst of the Worst:
“Insta-Love” & “Miscommunication”
Both the insta-love trope and the miscommunication trope are effective ways to ruin a romance novel or movie. Who wants to read a book where the two characters fall in love at first sight? Boooooring. And the miscommunication trope, where there’s an easily avoidable miscommunication between two characters, just complicates the story unnecessarily. Brayla Flottemesch (11) agrees that the miscommunication trope “just drags out the story and is aggravating.” A movie with the insta-love trope is quite literally almost any Disney princess movie (not in the teen genre, I know, but there’s no better example), while the miscommunication trope can be found in the book Delirium.
“Evil for Evil’s Sake” & “Time Travel Just Because”
These two tropes are lumped together because they both give off lazy creator vibes. It’s very important to craft a villain with a meaningful backstory and to not resort to time travel just to solve plot holes. Claire Houser (9) says that “Evil for Evil’s Sake is probably the (trope) that gets on [her] nerves the most,” and who can blame her? She suggests Phineas and Ferb as an example of this trope because Dr. Doofenshmirtz “seems to have no consistent motive for building his evil inventions from him.” As for the time travel, creators typically can’t even keep their own time travel rules straight, making for an even more confusing experience. A book with a random dose of time travel is the Kingdom Keepers book series.
“Unsupervised Teenagers” & “Societal Outcasts”
These tropes tend to be found hand-in-hand, with a group of societal outcasts being conveniently unsupervised and able to get away with anything for any reason. This is a pretty overdone trope and reeks of unrealism: what teenagers are able to be unsupervised for such long periods of time? Meghan Kelley (11), however, enjoys the “unsupervised teenagers (trope), preferably with a side of evil parents/authority figure.” I will admit, this can make the lack of supervision a little more bearable. Kelley’s recommendation for a TV series with “the evil parents part” that “gives so much DRAMA” is Runaways. A book with the societal outcasts trope is the Mortal Instruments series.
“Token Diversity Friends” & “The Main Group”
The main group trope–a common variation of which is the “golden trio”–is a story focused on one group of friends who have been and will be together forever. This trope is just a little basic and also unrealistic. The most unpopular trope (out of all my interviewees), however, is the “token diversity friends” trope, which sees undeveloped and flat characters added to the story just to check a diversity box, whether that be a person of color, a woman or an LGBTQ character. This just cheapens the story with inorganic and insensitive stereotypes. Styborski dismisses this trope: “It shouldn’t be hard to include minority groups in stories as plot-relevant characters for reasons other than the group they represent.” I won’t call out any teen fiction with token diversity here, but a show with the main group trope is Boy Meets World. Its spinoff Girl Meets World is also overreliant on this trope.
“She let out a breath that she didn’t know she’d been holding.” & “I’m not like other girls.”
While “she let out a breath that she didn’t know she’d been holding” is more of an overused line than a trope, it’s worth referencing as it has been done to death. I physically cringe when I read this line in a book, as well as the line “her eyes de ella widened in surprise.” Eyes don’t widen, people. What does that even mean? These types of lines are found in books like 13 Reasons Why that lean too hard into the “main character” vibe. Finally, there’s the ever-cringey “I’m not like other girls” that is completely synonymous with Twilight at this point. Flottemesch avoids the most overused trope ever because she considers it “too predictable” and says there are just “too many of them.” And let’s be real, everyone’s encountered this trope (or even a real person trying to live out this trope IRL).
Overall, tropes are neutral in and of themselves, but are often tragically overdone, especially in the teen fiction genre. That’s why we end up with a sour taste in our mouths whenever we hear the phrase “I’m not like other girls.” Houser says that there are many tropes that “do make a good story” but “are overused.” So now you know some of the mainstream tropes that lurk in every piece of teen fiction. There are more specific ones, such as Kelley’s favored “government meets one particularly stubborn rule breaker that somehow singlehandedly destroys it/changes it” trope (very niche), but even knowledge of these few tropes is enough to reveal the secrets of teen fiction. Be sure to use this knowledge to temper your exposure to tropes so that you don’t become worn out with overdone and poorly crafted tropes, and of course make sure that you never hear yourself utter the phrase “I’m not like other girls” .