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[Writing] Tropes

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

Tropes are a way to make your writing sing. Figurative language is the key to amazing poetry, but it also plays a role in engaging prose. However, symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. Knowing the tropes is great, but you can’t load up every sentence in your story with them. They should be used once in a while as a bonus, the cherry on top, the key to getting an emotional reaction from the reader.

Therefore, I think tropes should only be used if you can’t put a thought, idea or action on the page in a concise manner without using a trope. You might say something like:

For Dan, going to school was a million times worse than having to eat his vegetables.

which is a good hyperbole. But it’s not the way to go. You should express Dan’s hatred for school by weaving it into the narrative (describing bad events happening there, bad thoughts about it, listing all things he hates about it). If you then only include a single sentence about him not liking some vegetables, the same distinction is drawn but in a more subtle, showing manner.

As you can see, tropes are often used by lazy writers when they can’t describe something. You shouldn’t fall for that – let all your descriptive powers free, and only after your first try see if you can replace or add one or two sentences with tropes for extra effectiveness.

I’ve categorized the most important tropes and listed them all below for you to see and learn. Use them to your advantage!


Eufemism: A softer word instead of a harsh one.

He died => He passed away

Understatement: A weakened statement

We sold a tiny bit less than expected: only 2 out of the 2000 hamburgers we had made.

Litotes: A weakened statement using a double negative.

He was in favour of the idea => He wasn’t against the idea


Hyperbole: An exaggerated statement.

John had been waiting for Mark for centuries

A deafening sound  -  you’re not literally deaf after you’ve heard it, it was just very loud.


Irony: When you say one thing, but you mean the opposite. Or the reverse of what you expected happens.

‘Wow, that shirt doesn’t look ugly at all!’ (sarcasm)

The murder scene investigator was arrested for killing his girlfriend

Prolepsis: Placing an important word at the beginning of a sentence, or important sentence at the beginning of a paragraph for emphasis.

That clown, boy do I have a bone to pick with him.

Anticipation: Opposite of prolepsis; placing words at the end.

‘The biggest, the best, the funniest: Mike Wazowski!

Repetition: Repeating a certain element or phrase. Simplest form of enumeration.

Well, well, well, what do we have here?

Enumeration: Putting different elements of a list directly after each other.

That lying, cheating, devious man – I don’t trust him at all

Enumeration in threes: As you can see, I almost always use three related elements after each other in the examples. That’s because using three elements is simply the most powerful. But, only use it if there are actually three important and relevant elements to mention.

Pleonasm: Using an adjective in front of a word that already contains that property. Basically, this means placing a redundant word in your sentence. Only use it for emphasis purposes.

The green grass was moved by the mild breeze

White snow completely covered our roof in less than an hour.

Tautology: Using different words with (nearly) the exact same meaning in the same sentence. Again, redundant words are only good if you mean to emphasize them.

The plaza was desolate and abandoned.

I am delighted and exited!

Antithesis: Contrasting antonyms by using them in a combination or after each other in a sentence.

It was a party for young and old.

They kept partying until the late morning, when the sun had already pushed away the moon.

Make the reader think

Paradox: If we assume one part of the sentence to be true, the other part can never be true. Therefore, the whole sentence can never be true nor false.

Then the president of the United States spoke: ‘All Americans always lie!’

If a being is omnipotent, then it can limit its own ability to perform actions and hence it cannot perform all actions, yet, on the other hand, if it cannot limit its own actions, then that is—straight off—something it cannot do. 

Rhetorical question: A question put in such a way that we already know the (expected) answer.

Who doesn’t want to make lots of money?

Don’t you think an eclipse is an incredible phenomenon?

Comical effect

Word play: Using words in a different way than expected or making funny connections. Most often seen in riddles or jokes, but can be subtly put into a story.

What happens to a frog’s car when it breaks down? It gets toad away.

I never wanted to believe that my Dad was stealing from his job as a road worker. But when I got home, all the signs were there.

Metaphors and Imagery

Simile: Compares two things through explicit use of certain words (as, like, so, than).

The sun set like a field of drowsing roses

It was as good as new

Synaesthesia: Using several senses to describe something.

A warm voice that spoke bitter words.

Sweet songs painted by tasty colours.

Personification: Attributing human properties to something.

Screaming colours.

The clouds cried about what had happened.

The future smiles at you!

Metaphor: A simile without a concatenation word.

Life is an obstacle course.

He had a foggy glance in his eyes.

‘Clean your room, it’s a pigsty here!’

Metonymy: Comparing using something else than a similarity, using a different area where the two things touch or contact.

Three Rembrandts were stolen from the museum. (Rembrandt => painting by him)

England lost the final match against Sweden. (England => The national team)

The pen is mightier than the sword. (Pen => written words, Sword => military force)

Rhyme, rhythm and flow

This topic is a little bit different from the other tropes. It’s a combination of figurative language and ways to structure a paragraph or set of sentences. These are often applied throughout a paragraph, or maybe even subtly throughout a whole chapter.

Climax: From bad to worse. You start with something mildly annoying, and then it gets out of hand.

First the mob was calm, then people started to push and pull, soon a riot had arisen on the sides, and within minutes you had to make sure you got out of there.

Anti-climax: Reverse climax. You start with a very bad event, and then decrease impact.

He groaned from the pain, rolled back and forth, but eventually didn’t move anymore.

Chiasmus: Sometimes called a cross statement. You first mention two things in a certain order, and then later on mention them (or related elements) again in reverse order.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls!

He said he didn’t know, knowing he could never say the words.

The windows shut, he had closed every door.

Do I love you because you're beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you? 

Alliteration: Starting multiple words with the same letter. Best when used on only two words right next to each other, or three or four throughout the sentence. Can easily be overdone.

The open obstacle made its way towards the protected palace.

As he doubted and doted, he grew more fond of the beautiful garden.

Assonance: Using the same vowel sounds. It’s a weakened form of rhyming, which is often used well in songs, but goes unnoticed in writing. Don’t think that means that it doesn’t enhance your writing – just that a reader needs to speak the words in his head to find the rhythm.

Compared to most, he was kind. Though often tempted, he didn’t bite.

He tried it for years. ‘Dear Lucy’, he wrote time and time again.

Onomatopoeia: A word that phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes. Basically, reading the word makes you think or feel its meaning, rather than simply remembering the meaning and reading on. Using these can sometimes look childish, but usually work to your advantage.

Splish, splash, she liked playing in the bath tub.

The wind whooshed and made drops of water drip from the trees.

He gurgled and growled as he left the building – now unemployed.

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