First of all, coming soon will be a whole impassioned rant on how much I hate the neologism “tropes” and the way they’re applied by people who are trying to figure out what they’re talking about by borrowing other non-experts’ terminology as a short cut past thinking. But let’s assume we all know what is currently meant by the word “tropes,” and at least for now, their life as an ever growing list of clichés designed to diminish all creativity.

I started ranting there, but that’s really not what I want to talk about.

I’ve said before and often that every genre has at their heart some list of elements that help define what that genre is, or at least what it has been. These are things like dragons in fantasy, starships in science fiction, werewolves in horror… you get what I mean, yes?

And we have all seen clichéd dragons, starships, and werewolves—and we’ve all seen wildly original dragons, starships, and werewolves.

The distance between cliché and “wildly original” can often be almost invisibly thin. Just a little nudge in any direction turns a dragon into your dragon—and in case I’m being too subtle, that’s what you should be going for: the creation of your dragon, your starship, your werewolf, and so on.

Sometimes, whole groups of authors show up with the overt intention of moving genres in a different direction, like the so-called New Wave SF authors of the Ballard, Ellison, and Moorcock generation, or the hardboiled pulp authors like Raymond Chandler, who wrote quite openly on the sorry state of the detective mystery pre… him.

This, the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is the story you will find almost any week in the big shiny magazines, handsomely illustrated, and paying due deference to virginal love and the right kind of luxury goods. Perhaps the tempo has become a trifle faster, and the dialogue a little more glib. There are more frozen daiquiris and stingers ordered, and fewer glasses of crusty old port; more clothes by Vogue, and décors by the House Beautiful, more chic, but not more truth. We spend more time in Miami hotels and Cape Cod summer colonies and go not so often down by the old gray sundial in the Elizabethan garden. But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flat-feet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.

Okay, we get it—stop copying Agatha Christie!

Good news: there are some original voices coming through in fantasy right now. Whether or not some of the latest sub-genres like cozy fantasy or dark academia are to your liking, archetypes are being turned upside down, moved around some, or at least nudged here and there in order to keep the genre fresh. As a fan of genre fiction, I love this. I don’t want to read the same fantasy story over and over again any more than Chandler wanted to read the same mystery story. And though you might not woo me into cozy fantasy fandom, I at least love that it’s there.

If you’re doing this—stretching the boundaries of fantasy, science fiction, or horror in any way—please keep going! Don’t be afraid. You might just hit upon the Next Big Thing, or maybe be rediscovered a hundred years after your death as a forgotten ground-breaker, or anyway be an author worth reading today, leaving Tolkien back there with Christie and, to be honest, Chandler.

An author worth reading… that sounds like a worthy goal for any and all of us!

—Philip Athans

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Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. sonjatyson06 says:

    Isn’t that the goal, to write something unique? I, too, have tried, with my first novel. I have a mangy sort of werewolf in it. I wrote him sort of tongue in cheek. To take ‘tropes’ and make them new, I think, is something I’ve been trying to do in my writing, to include the next novel. To be surprising, to make the reader smile or say ‘What the hell?” should be the goal. I don’t understand just doing the same story over and over, or wanting to read the same story over and over.

    I will say, as a beginner, so much of the advice is to follow a pattern already well established.

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