DRAMATIC TROPES – AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
“How can it be a cliché? Everybody uses it!”
Albert Brooks, 1972.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a trope as, “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” In drama, trope has a more pejorative meaning: cliché. Movies and television shows are rife with tropes. From the lowliest reality show to the biggest studio blockbuster, content creators frequently default to characters, plotlines, dialogue, obstacles and solutions that quickly become achingly familiar to anyone with even just a passing interest in mass media.
Here are just a few examples of tropes all-too-common in modern entertainment:
1. The renegade cop who “breaks the rules.”
2. The angry, hot-tempered boss.
3. The hooker with a heart of gold.
4. The 30ish career woman who “can’t find a man.”
5 The fiendish real estate developer.
6. The socially awkward tech nerd.
1. The car that flies off a cliff and then explodes like a bomb upon impact.
2. Characters who walk blithely away from nearby explosions.
3. Characters who actually outrun explosions and/or fireballs.
4. Characters who fall from great heights without suffering serious injury.
5. Henchmen who can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
6. “Flesh wounds” that cause no functional impairment.
1. “He didn’t make it.”
2. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
3. “I was born ready.”
4. “Don’t you die on me!”
5. “We’ve got company.”
6. “It’s showtime!”
Why is the use of tropes so common? There are several reasons:
1. Writing is Hard Work. Being creative is draining process. Mentally. Spiritually. Even physically. And even more so if you’re tasked with churning out hour after hour of series television on an unforgiving schedule. When stuck for an idea, it’s always easier to default to a cliché than to struggle for an original solution that may never materialize. That studio executives – and audiences – often seem perfectly content with tropes provides a further incentive for writers to take the “easy route.”
2. “Going with Your Gut” and “Writing What You Know.” Writers, both newbies and veterans, are often advised to “Go with your gut,” “Write what you know,” and “Trust your instincts.” The problem with this approach is that, as a generation raised on thousands upon thousands of hours of TV shows and motion pictures, what we “know” is a reality already filtered through the eyes of the thousands of screenwriters who preceded us. We got our legal education from “L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” and “Matlock.” We learned medicine from “St. Elsewhere,” “E.R.”, “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” We learned about politics from “The West Wing,” “Scandal” and “House of Cards,” law enforcement from “Hill Street Blues,” “Law & Order” and “The Wire,” and history from “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
When confronted with the tyranny of the blank page, it’s no surprise that most writers – even seasoned ones – will reach into their media-filled memory vaults and retrieve characters, dialogue, technical detail and story elements that are really nothing but a pastiche of familiar fictions that have become permanent fixtures in our cultural zeitgeist.
3. They Work. Tropes become tropes because they fill a need. They are formulas that have proved themselves successful time and again. If you were going to design an interesting action hero from scratch, a “renegade cop who breaks the rules” would probably be one of the best ideas you could devise. Likewise, when creating a comedic character, the “socially awkward tech nerd” not only offers obvious comic potential, but reflects a societal archetype many of us have encountered in our actual lives. And while explosions that don’t knock people flat or can be outrun by fleet-footed protagonists may be blatantly unrealistic, they do provide the visceral thrill we as audience members pay to experience.
The problem with tropes isn’t their utility – which is often substantial – but that they are, by definition, obvious and lazy. While an established writer secure in his/her own career can afford to fall back on tropes as a way to meet a deadline or please a data-driven marketing executive, new, ambitious writers can’t be so nonchalant. Writers determined to get attention and win fans need to know how to recognize tropes – and find creative and effective ways to transcend them.
How to Realize You’re Using a Trope
When you’re writing and script and have a sudden flash of inspiration – nine out of 10 times, you’re actually defaulting to a trope. As stated above, you can’t help it. Outside of your own personal experiences, virtually everything you know about the outside world has come from TV and the movies. (And books, if you’re still into that kind of thing.) Unless you’ve actually been to prison, virtually everything you know – or think you know – about criminal incarceration comes from other writers. The same applies to cities and countries you’ve never visited, jobs in which you’ve never been employed, and people you’ve never met.
If you feel the need to confirm your suspicions, go online. There are several websites devoted to the identification and celebration of tropes, including TV Tropes (tvtropes.org), Sterotropes (stereotropes.bocoup.com) and this one (www.screenwritingspark.com/the-ultimate-list-of-movie-cliches-for-screenwriters).
Whatever you’re writing, stop for a moment and think: Does this feel familiar? Where might I have seen this before? Do I really know what I’m writing about, or just making an educated – or uneducated – guess?
Also, avoid trusting your first instinct. If you easily came up with a solution, so did your audience. And you want to surprise them. If, faced with A, your hero does B, make B fail. This will force your hero to try C. Or D. Throwing up unexpected obstacles can send your story into new, exciting and ultimately very satisfying directions.
How to Transcend Tropes
The simplest way to overcome the use of tropes is also the most difficult: research. When you choose a subject, go as deep into it as you can with the intent of discovering something you don’t already know. Depending on your time and budget, types of research you can employ include:
• Internet searches. This is the easiest and cheapest way to research a subject. Just type in a few keywords and then sift your way through the thousands of responses to find the nuggets you’re looking for. The Internet is particularly useful for finding technical details that can a patina of verisimilitude to even the wildest of narratives.
• Books. Before computers, people wrote things down on paper and bound them into volumes they could share with one another. Repositories of such ancient volumes – called libraries – still exist in many communities. If budget cuts or public disinterest has shuttered your local library, you can still find many useful reference books on virtually any subject…on the Internet.
• Interviews. Although writing is usually a solitary affair, getting social every now and then can yield major dividends. Whatever subject you’re writing about, seek out people to interview for deep background, technical details or story ideas. Don’t be shy. You may surprised how many people are eager to cooperate when you explain that you’re writing a screenplay.
• Personal Visits. When writing about an unfamiliar place, nothing beats visiting the location in person. Granted, traveling to distant destinations can get expensive, especially if they’re in another city, another country or even another continent. On the flip side, if your efforts produce income, you can usually write off many of these travel-related expenses as “research” when doing your federal income taxes..
The cool thing about research is that it usually provides you with complications and solutions you would have never imagined on your own. It also helps you make your script more realistic – that is, creating the illusion of being real – which is necessary to help an audience willingly suspend its disbelief.
Like freedom, screenwriting requires constant vigilance. We must constantly be on guard against our proclivity to default to the familiar, to follow the path of least resistance, and to timidly go where other writers have gone before. Only by regarding our own writing with scientific-like skepticism, by constantly questioning ourselves like a caffeinated four-year-old, can we rise above the mundane and create stories worthy of the attention — and remuneration– we hope to earn.
Otherwise we’ll all just spend the rest of our lives outrunning explosive fireballs.
– Allen. B Ury