A trope, in literature, is the use of figurative language to make descriptions more evocative and interesting. A work is enriched by its use. The word “trope” comes from the Greek, “tropos,” meaning a “change of direction”. In the past, the definition was different than it is today. In classic rhetoric, the word is used to speak about a specific literary device. But more recently, it has taken on a negative connotation as something (a type of character, setting, action, or relationship) that is overused and unoriginal.
Purpose of a Trope
Classically, tropes are used to improve a writer’s depiction of anything from a person, place, idea, thing, experience, or creature. They make the writing feel more alive and can capture a reader’s attention in ways that otherwise would not be possible. When one recalls the more contemporary definition, a repeated trope can have the opposite effect. It might make a story, poem, or novel feel dull, overwrought, and unoriginal.
Classic Examples of Tropes
Tropes cover a wide range of figurative language. These include, but certainly are not limited to:
- Metaphor: a metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things in which the words “like” and “as” are not used. This is one of the most common ways that tropes enter into literature. For example, “He is a shining star”.
- Hyperbole: hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration created in order to make a point about the subject matter. For example, “He runs as fast as the wind”.
- Metonymy: this literary device substitutes an attribute for a proper name. For example, “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
- Oxymoron: an oxymoron is a contradicting term that reveals a deeper truth about that which it is speaking. For example, “living death” or “deafening silence”.
Contemporary Examples of Tropes
Today, the word trope is used to describe a reoccurring theme, symbol, motif or plot device that a certain writer or genre of writer frequently uses. Tropes can be clever ways of informing readers about the type of world they’re entering into or the nature of a character they encounter. But tropes can also become cliche. In the case of the less skilled writer, tropes are used when other descriptions or more original ideas are out of one’s grasp.
There are a range of examples one might cite as classic tropes. These might once have been successful, original depictions but over time have become associated with a specific kind of person, scene, or event. For example, a ticking clock. A clock is a powerful symbol, and when placed into a narrative is an obvious way of informing the reader that time should be considered. It is always moving forward or depending on narrative, perhaps counting down or leading up to something. It is often a symbol for death or for something pressing a character has to attend to.
Many tropes come into narratives though the description of characters. For example, the classic girl next door, the mysterious government official in a suit, or the cowboy in the stetson. Others could include the man having a mid-life crisis and buying a car or the battered housewife pushing back against her husband. There is the plucky best friend who the protagonist can’t do without and the loyal dog that may or may not meet a bad fate.