What Are Movie Tropes and How to Use Them in Your Writing

Writing Tropes the Femme Fatale
Credit: The Take
Tropes in movies and television can help balance your writing and allow you to control the tone. 

When I sit down to write a film or television show I try to watch as many shows or movies in a similar genre. I do this to absorb what works and what didn't work for the people who tried before. In this way, I can learn lessons and try to avoid the pitfalls of a certain genre. But I also can figure out the identifying characteristics that define a certain type of story. 

If you love watching movies and TV, you probably get used to some of the things that seem to happen in similar stories. It often feels like we see the same beats, twists, and turns. Well, in a way, that's a simple definition of a trope. Don't worry, we'll get into a more complicated one later. 

Today, I want to talk about tropes. How to use them, their meaning, and examples used in film and TV. So let's get ready for a lively discussion and see what we can dig up as we examine the deepest and darkest secrets in storytelling.  

How to use movie tropes and TV tropes in your writing 

Welcome to the wild world of tropes. I'm so happy you could join me on my exploration. See, this stuff didn't just pop up. It's been in our literature and storytelling for thousands of years. Genres date back to the ancient Greek and African legends. They were fine-tuned as things started getting written down and stories started to evolve. 

The trope definition

What is a trope? And what's the meaning of "trope"?

A film or TV trope is the consistent or expected use of certain characters, situations, settings, and time periods across a specific genre. The word has come to be used for common recurring rhetorical devices, motifs or even clichés within creative works. 

When we define trope meaning, we also need to define the genre of the story. 

What about trope vs archetype?

Here's where things get a little tricky and come down to semantics. An archetype refers to a kind character that transcends genre. Whereas a trope is a general term that, when you get specific with the kinds of tropes, usually only belongs to a certain genre. 

Did that make sense? 

An easier way to look at it is that when you're writing the archetypes to help you build a character, a trope help you lean into the specific plot and expectations of what you're writing. 

So an archetype might be something like a warrior character. Maybe Maximus in Gladiator. But the trope in war movie that Maximus is involved in is that he's a commander beloved by his soldiers. 

What about trope vs cliche? 

A cliche is a way you'd describe a trope that has been seen so many times that it feels tired or worn out. It's an overused and exhausted idea. For example, the idea of the buxom blonde being stabbed to death is a boring cliche in a slasher film. That cliche is tired and everyone has done it, but it's also a trope that people expect within the horror genre. 

So how did Scream subvert the cliche but embrace the trope? 

They killed off the blonde in the opening scene in an interesting way. Thus making it not feel cliche and still embracing what we expect in a horror. 

Let's dig deeper...

What is an example of a trope?

We went over a couple of trope examples earlier, but I wanted to use our time here to really look at a few across different genres.

Horror movie tropes

Inside horror movies, there are lots of things you can expect to see, but the most popular one is jump scares. Jump scares really build the world out and are why we go to see those movies in the theater. 

Another trope exists in the setting. 

Many times we see things like abandoned places or haunted houses. You can use these tropes for your horror story but try to find abandoned things that are scarier than just old homes. What twists can you put on the story? 

And again, it's not just the story, it's also the characters. 

The final girl is a horror movie character trope that we see often. It refers to the last woman standing in a slasher film, like your Sidney Prescotts and your Laurie from Halloween

What are tropes in film noir? 

I wanted to look at a subgenre like noir because I think we forget that tropes exist in everything. If you take something like the voiceover, it's a hotly contested trope in the genre. It's used elegantly in Veronica Mars, but it was removed from Blade Runner

One thing they both have in common is the idea that private investigators or detectives are involved. You see that in almost every noir. 

Aside from occupations, there are also people you can count on, like the femme fatale. Femme fatales like Brigid O'Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon or Selina Kyle from various iterations of Batman are there to tempt our detective only to stab her in the back. 

You can subvert these and write better female characters though. 

Female movie tropes

One of the things about trope is that they can become cliche when they're done over and over again with no innovation. When it comes to female representation in film and television, a lot of the tropes have become bad cliches. Mostly because they're written by bad writers. So don't be a bad writer. 

Not all tropes are made to be followed. Some are made to be broken. 

We went over the femme fatale as a trope, but what about the manic pixie dream girl. A manic pixie dream girl is a female character written whose only purpose is to help the men in their story change. And you should avoid using that trope at all cost.

Another one that gets overused is the crazy girl - the psychopath who just chases a man because she's nuts. Like Darla in Dinner for Schmucks or even Kathy Bates in Misery. While not inherently sexist like the manic pixie dream girl, you want to make sure these characters get built out and have their own arcs. 

A list of movie tropes and character tropes 

We went over specifics, but what other tropes are out here? I wanted to give you a few to inspire you as you work on your own ideas. 

  • Zombies - in horror the use of this monster has been seen every which way.
  • Will they, won't they? - Jim and Pam or Diane and Sam - this is seen in so many sitcoms.
  • Walking away from an explosion - From Wolverine to Michael Bay, everyone does it.
  • The cool girl - everyone loves the stylish popular gal who loves sports.
  • The misguided dad - Hook or even The Change-Up – we've seen dads obsessed with work.
  • "They're right behind me, aren't they?" - this little bit of dialogue is a trope in every genre.
  • Geek to chic - we see these transformations in Clueless and even She's All That.
  • Fat friends - Can we get a fat lead for once? 
  • Anonymous henchmen - Stormtroopers, the Foot, Putties from Power Rangers.
  • Fired off the case - Why does every cop from Rush Hour to Breaking Bad get fired off the case? 
  • Damsel in distress - Tangled has a fun twist here. 
  • Don't trust anybody - if a character tells you not to trust someone, don't trust them. 
  • Dumb dads - From Homer Simpson to Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, your dads can be smart! 
  • Meet cute - Rom-coms always like getting their characters and adorable way to meet. 
  • Raining at funerals - Some of these funerals happen in LA, why is it raining? 
  • Idiot best friend - Joey from Friends is funny but be creative instead of trying to replicate him over and over. 
  • The fish out of water - Everyone loves this one. It adds a new face and helps add to your story.
  • White saviors - the white person who swoops in to save the people of color in distress. 

Summing up tropes in film and TV 

When it comes to tropes in movies and television, all you can do is watch a ton of examples in each genre and pick your favorites. You can Google and study, but it really just is about doing the legwork. Know what genre you want to work in and craft your story. 

It's not easy, but it can be a ton of fun. There's nothing more satisfying than working an old trope and making it feel new. So go get writing, I can't wait to read what you finish. Got trope problems? Put them in the comments! I'll check back periodically to help. 

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