What are Tropes?

You have likely heard the term trope used today in reference to common themes in popular media, especially movies and television, especially ones that are overused in each genre. In fact, there’s a very popular website that’s been around for a long time dedicated to finding and calling out these things, called TV Tropes, which I encourage everyone to get lost exploring whenever you can. Today’s use of the word has taken on a negative connotation, but the true definition of the word trope doesn’t have to always mean “lazy, over-used piece of writing.”

Classical Definition of Trope

The word trope comes to us from the Greek word tropos, meaning a turn or change of direction. The word has taken on a bit of a different meaning these days, but classically, the term had been used to describe specific figures of speech or else literary devices. You may recognize and be more familiar with many of the popular types of tropes in literature.

  • Irony Though irony has many different applications, we can sum it up as a literary device that at the surface is radically different than what is actually the case. Often times, that means the opposite. “He was as bright as a burnt out light bulb” is an example of verbal irony. Telling the audience some key piece of information that the characters do not yet know is an example of dramatic irony, and so forth.
  • Metaphor and Simile – Most people are familiar with the concepts of metaphor and simile, both terms meaning something that is being described in terms of another thing. The only difference between the two is that similes implore the use of “like” or “as”, where metaphors do not. “He was a real pig at dinner last night” is an example of a metaphor. “She was strong as an ox when she lifted him off the floor after he ate too much food” is an example of simile.
  • Hyperbole – These are exaggerations made intentionally for dramatic effect, not to be taken literally. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” is an exaggeration made to demonstrate the extent of the man’s hunger, and thus is hyperbole.
  • Oxymoron – When a term or phrase contradicts itself in order to make a deeper point or simply introduce a paradox, it’s called an oxymoron. “Jumbo shrimp” is one of my favorite oxymorons. “Passive aggressive” is another. “Busy doing nothing” is also an oxymoron.

There are many different types of tropes in literature. For more information on some more of the common tropes, check out the wikipedia article.

Modern Use of Tropes

Most of the time today, the term trope is most commonly used to describe a particular device used in film and television that is common to a genre or a particular filmmaker. There are many different examples, and I encourage you to get lost in the TV Tropes website and find them all out yourself, but I wanted to touch on two applications of the term very briefly. Keep in mind that tropes are not the same thing as clichés – although tropes are very easily able to be cliché.

  • Genre Tropes – These are things that are common within a particular genre. In comedy, this could be a character who is overly stupid, or it could come in the form of a straight man / funny many combo that you see in a lot of media such as classics like Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple or David Spade and Chris Farley’s characters in Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996). Tropes don’t have to come in the form of a character, however. In drama, an example of a trope could be the underlying “coming of age story” that describes the entire plot. Feel free to check out more genre tropes here.
  • Filmmaker Tropes – Tropes that are common to a specific director or filmmaker are called filmmaker tropes. These can come in many forms as well, such as actors (think Wes Anderson using Owen and Luke Wilson in many films) or characters that are re-used in different films (think Jay and Silent Bob in many of Kevin Smith’s films). This can also be a common filmic element like the lens flares in J. J. Abrams films, or close-up shots of actresses’ feet in Quentin Tarrantino’s films. There are quite a lot of things that certain filmmakers tend to re-use when making films, and when they’re highly praised, they might even be good enough to be called an auteur, the French word for “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.”

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