Tropes get a bad rap, but they can be great devices for telling stories. In some genres, they’re even necessary. It’s good to think of them like cliches. If overused, or inserted instead of being creative or original, they make a piece of fiction boring and flat.
But when you use them to communicate a lot of information in a compact form, and to set and meet expectations for your reader, they can be as good a device as anything. Star Wars caught the imagination of the whole world because of its tropes…and was disappointing from time to time because of how heavily it relied on them instead of stronger storytelling.
Today we’ll talk about tropes, starting with defining the two major branches.
Two Kinds of Tropes
You hear the word trope to mean two different things:
- Trope (n): a literary device, such as hyperbole, metaphor, or flashback.
- Trope (n): a recognizable “piece” of storytelling used commonly, either in specific genres or in literature as a whole.
Today we’re talking about the second kind. One way to think about them is to consider them “figures of speech” for storytelling. For example, if you’re trying to explain to a buddy that somebody is enormous, you might say “he was as big as a house”. Your friend knows that he was not, in fact, as large as a 2,000 square foot split-level, but he knows that you mean the person is very, very big for a human male.
In telling a story that follows tropes, you ask less of your reader. Once they recognize the villain as a wicked spellcaster, the sidekick as the adorable urchin, or the plot as a McGuffin hunt, they know better where to focus their attention and can engage more deeply with the unique parts of your story.
That’s what tropes are for. Whether they’re good or bad depends entirely on how well you execute them.
Your Big, Bad List of Tropes
We’ll spend the rest of this article listing some of the most common tropes used in different genres of fiction, along with some examples from popular books and movies. Starting with…
- Anti-Heroes – when a seemingly bad person turns out to be good, or when your protagonist is not a great person but you root for them anyway. See Jack Sparrow and Deadpool for perfect examples.
- Big Twist – when near the end of the story, new information comes to light that changes how the reader must rethink everything they’ve seen so far. The Usual Suspects may be the platonic ideal of this trope.
- Black-and-White Thinking – especially in adventure yarns and children’s books, a protagonist with a black and white moral compass makes the reading easier and often the challenge more difficult. Nick Cage’s character in Con Air and Cap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are two examples of this in action.
- Chosen One – the protagonist or another main character is born to perform a task related to the story. Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are both Chosen Ones.
- Coming of Age – a young character goes through experiences that cross them over into adulthood (or sometimes from childhood to being a teenager). It’s often a secondary plot, but books like Paper Towns and The Graduate offer excellent examples.
- Double-Crosses – when a trusted friend, employee, or other side character betrays the protagonist, usually by surprise. Think about the nameless helper who shouts “Throw me the idol” in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- Enemies to Lovers – two characters begin in conflict, whether with cute bickering or true enmity. By the end, they are in love. Often pairs nicely with the Forbidden Love trope. Pride and Prejudice, and a lot of Austen’s work, features this. See also when mortal enemies must team up to stop a more important foe, even without the romantic entanglements.
- Fall From Grace – when the strong become weak, the virtuous become evil, or the wealthy become poor, it creates potential for growth and drama. This can happen as part of the story, or be something that happened before the action began. You need go no further than Walter White in Breaking Bad.
- Family Drama – whether conflict and drama is the center of the tale, or a pair of bickering siblings are frequently appearing side characters, this taps into our own experience with the same. Modern Family and Parenthood (the movie and the TV show) demonstrate this in full.
- First Contact – usually with an alien species, but we’ve some human-to-human versions of this in historical fiction. Think Arrival or The Well of Sacrifice.
- Forbidden Love – when two characters love each other, but for one reason or another really should not. Romeo and Juliet is the most famous, but I also love how this appears in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
- Found Family – any time a book expands the definition of family beyond blood and marriage, it deals with particularly powerful themes. Firefly and Six of Crows work this well.
- Heists – whether it’s a criminal enterprise, a daring raid, or a college prank, when you put complex shenanigans on the page things get tense and fun. The Oceans 11, 12, etc. series is the epitome of these.
- Larger Than Life Adventure – where you turn things up to eleven, threatening potentially the whole world with what the bad guys want to make happen. Most James Bond books and movies center around this kind of trope.
- Love Interest – it’s so common we almost don’t spot it as a trope so much as a necessary part of a story. Romance and erotica (sort of) make this the core plot. Some examples include the statue in Thistlefoot, Murphy in The Dresden Files, and Arwen in Lord of the Rings.
- Love Triangles – when the wrong people love the wrong people and it messes everything up. Dangerous Liaisons and its recasting Cruel Intentions show how to do this right.
- McGuffin Hunt – the search for a missing object. The Deathly Hallows in the last Harry Potter series was a McGuffin Hunt.
- On the Job – where your protagonist is an action professional, like a police officer or soldier, and works within the confines of their duty. Both JAG and the Jack Ryan series include elements of this trope.
- Puzzle Solving – putting together the pieces of some kind of mystery, be it a cypher, a technological device, a conspiracy, or anything else. The DaVinci code centered around solving a multi-layered, ancient puzzle.
- Secret Identities – from spies and superheroes, to comedies of errors, not knowing that a character is actually who they are can be found across many genres. Superman/Clark Kent, and the masquerade scene in Phantom of the Opera are wildly different instances of this single thing.
- Small Town/Big City – focusing on how the setting is different from other places, or makes its people different, can lend flavor to a story…or be the story’s backbone. Doc Hollywood shows one way to do this, and so does Lake Wobegon.
- Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy – have you ever noticed how bad guys, no matter how well trained, can’t seem to hit anything when it really matters? The Star Wars movies give this trope its name, and for good reason.
- The Badass Team – when you collect a set of people, each of whom is excellent at one part of a greater whole, the synergy can drive an entire story or even a franchise. Beneath the Citadel and the better examples of Star Trek show this in action.
- Ticking Clock – whether it’s an actual clock ticking on a bomb, a looming deadline, or a pandemic spreading by the hour, adding time pressure to a task is a time-honored way of amping up a storyline. Noir classic DOA, and its 1988 remake, are perfect instances.
- Underdog Surprise – when a character who seems weak or otherwise incapable suddenly grows into their power and saves the day. Think about the Tortoise in his race with the hare, or Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter series.
This is a very incomplete list, but gives you an idea of how deep this well goes, and how well dipping into it can help your writing shine.
If you have an abundance of free time and don't mind getting lost down a wormhole, check out the Genre Tropes page at TVTropes.org, which lists thousands of tropes from across all forms of media.
A Word of Warning
I said earlier that whether or not a trope is bad or good depends on how you write it. That’s not quite so. There’s a species of trope that’s always bad.
What I’m talking about here are tropes that echo harmful stereotypes about different groups. Things like the magical negro, noble savage, the abusive romance, and childlike person with a disability. Although people once wrote them without any ill intent, we know better now. They’re best avoided.