Recently an acquaintance was describing an online film contest, and said most of the entries were, “filled with tropes.”

I like tropes. I’m fascinated by tropes. For a certain meaning of the word.

Here is a picture:
Calvin comic, demonstrating the difference between a speech bubble and a thought bubble
Calvin’s father is speaking. Calvin is thinking. There is a very good chance that you knew this. But why do you know?

And who was the first to think, “I need to show someone’s thoughts in my comic. How will I distinguish this from what they speak? I know, thoughts are puffier than speech.” I am impressed by someone who could make that mental leap.

The linguistic definition of a trope is along the lines of “using a word in something other than its literal meaning.” And that’s similar to what’s going on in this example. You can’t literally depict someone’s thoughts with an illustration, so we’ve invented the thought bubble to make it possible. And thoughts aren’t literally “puffier” than speech, but that’s how we depict it.

Does nobody say “cliche” anymore?

So I realize I’m being overly pedantic, but it feels to me like we’re losing a very nice word when people throw the word “trope” around in circumstances that have nothing to do with non-literal representation.

I think I partly blame movie reviewers. At some point, it became the in thing to say stuff like, “This movie uses the old trope of: good guys wear white hats, bad guys wear black hats.” (Which in itself is a fine use of the word. There’s no literal reason why someone would pick their hat colour based on their morals.) But they would never use the word “trope” in a complementary way, they wouldn’t talk about movies with “novel and innovative tropes.”

And it’s progressed to the point that people will use “trope” for anything where they recognize a pattern, without any consideration as to whether it’s trying to convey that non-literal meaning.

Is the “final girl” in a horror movie a trope, or is she a convention of the genre?

Cliche is a perfectly good word. Motif, another perfectly good word. Use them. Love them.

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One Response to “Trope”

  1. Ryan Hill says:

    This is a great example of what I’m talking about. What, exactly, was the movie doing that even a three-year-old had learned to recognize as a cue that the movie was wrapping up? That is fascinating to me.