I. What is a Trope?
The word trope can refer to any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times. Any kind of literary device or any specific example can be a trope. Most often the word is used to refer to tropes that are widespread such as irony, metaphor, juxtaposition, and hyperbole, or themes such as ‘the noble savage’ or ‘the reluctant hero.’ It must be used multiple times to be a ‘trope’ but it is also possible talk about something that’s a trope in only one novel or one author’s works if it is used many times.
Trope can also be used as a synonym for “metaphor,” but in this article we’ll focus on the more complex and common definition.
II. Examples of Trope
The “ticking clock” is a common trope of screenwriting. If you watch closely, the most exciting scenes in many stories will have a ticking clock – a deadline, the arrival of reinforcements or something else that the protagonists have to struggle against or hold out for. The ticking clock places additional pressure on the heroes and ramps up the dramatic tension in the story.
While the role of a mentor is an archetype (see section VI), the way that role is presented may involve any one of a number of tropes. For example, the mentor figure may be shown standing behind the hero, perhaps with a hand on his/her shoulder, giving advice. The Mentor’s long white beard is also a common trope.
Tropes can also occur in other art forms. For example, the chord progression known as the “12-Bar” is a trope of blues, rock, and country music. This specific chord progression is used in thousands of different songs, and no one knows who (if anyone) originally invented it.
III. The Importance of Tropes
Like any other literary or artistic techniques, tropes become popular because they work. Tropes get used again and again because they speak to us on some deep level and connect with our experiences, fears, and hopes. However, because tropes are such a vast category, they vary tremendously in terms of their purpose and effects. Each trope is used for something different!
IV. Examples of Trope in Literature
The trope of atonement or redemption is such a common trope that it might even be an archetype. In atonement stories, a character has done something wrong and must redeem his/her character or regain the trust of former allies. Often this is done through death, for example when Boromir makes up for trying to steal the Ring from Frodo (Fellowship of the Ring).
The trope of “false endearment” is often used to make characters seem creepy or dangerous. Evil characters use overly sugared language, call the protagonist names like “friend” or dear,” and generally act far too intimate for comfort. Overly familiar behavior like this can be disturbing in real life, so storytellers draw on that discomfort to make their characters seem creepy. One example is the serial killer Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. In the novel, Chigurh frequently calls people “friendo,” despite the fact that he is about to kill them. The oddness of the term, and its obvious inappropriateness under such circumstances, makes us deeply uneasy with Chigurh.
V. Examples of Trope in Pop Culture
One of the great tropes in science fiction is a metaphor, the “space is the sea” trope. This includes such terms as spaceship, star fleet, or the ranks “captain” and “admiral” used in space contexts. More meaningfully, it is used to create drama and feeling by comparing the experience of space-travelers to that of sailors in the endless and very dangerous seas.
One of the most common tropes in television is the “get rich quick scheme.” Some character, perhaps a neighbor or friend, is constantly coming up with new ideas to make a ton of money in a short time, and the episode gets its source of comedy or tension from the ways that plan goes horribly awry. Fred Flintstone, for example, is constantly coming up with ways that he and Barney Rubble can get rich quick – racing cars, inventing soft drinks, gambling rackets, etc. The trope appears in so many episodes that one of Fred’s catchphrases was “Barney, we’re gonna be rich!”
The trope of “mounting threat” is common in myths, video games, and movies alike. Over the course of the game, say, you face harder and harder bosses until the final boss, who is the most dangerous and frightening of all. Similarly, you fight on rougher and rougher terrain – after starting out in a sleepy woodland village, you climb a rocky mountain to face the final boss in the crater of an active volcano. An example of this trope from mythology is Beowulf, who fights the monster Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, and then the dragon in increasingly threatening circumstances.
VI. Related Terms
The category of tropes is so broad that you may start to wonder what isn’t a trope! The main thing to remember is that a trope is not a single unique instance of something. It usually belongs to more than one work or author—unless an author repeats something enough times for it to become a trope, such as Shakespeare’s “life is a play” metaphor, which is now a trope. It’s something that appears frequently, at least within a particular genre or culture.
Literary terms that are not trope:
When one writer or artist simply rips off another’s ideas, that’s plagiarism, or stealing. A trope is something that floats around in the culture and is so common that no one person can take credit for it. So when another author uses it, it’s not plagiarism – it’s just a trope.
A cliché is a tired, stale, or boring trope. Obviously, this is a bit of a subjective distinction – some people love the “good cop/bad cop” trope, for example, while others find it tiresome and cliché. The best thing to do is use tropes in original ways. Cliché has a very strong negative connotation.
An archetype, such as a mother-figure or father-figure, is a trope that is found in all (or nearly all) human cultures, and is therefore believed to be an expression of universal human desires or experiences. Unlike a cliché or an ordinary trope, archetypes never get old; they are stories and characters that people have retold, in different forms, for thousands of years, and yet no one considers them boring or cliché because they’re too meaningful and relevant to all of us.