How to Cope with a Trope

Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—

It falls into a trope.


Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?

No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.

Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.

Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.

Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.

Enter the…

Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.

On the other hand though, where would we be without tropes? Would genres even exist?

I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.

For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.

Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.

So what tropes can give the story a frame of reference without spelling doom for its creativity? How can they be used constructively?

I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?

Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.

Do you agree?

What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?

Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?

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