What is a trope? How is it different from an idiom or a cliche? In this article, we’re going to break down and define tropes, then show key trope examples from film. By the end, you’ll know how to both recognize and effectively use tropes in your own stories.
Don't mix up trope with cliche
Many people define trope with negative connotations, but to do so would be incorrect. The problem is that many common tropes are often confused with cliches.
Again: Any sound and accurate trope definition will define trope simply as a device within a story. It’s only when common tropes are overused, or used poorly, that they become cliches.
Film Trope DEFINITION
What is a Trope?
Film tropes are thematic storytelling devices that communicate something figurative to an audience. They can be something as simple as an object with symbolic meaning or something as complex as an action with referential meaning.
Essentially, film tropes are anything that allude to something other than their literal meaning.
Now that we’ve honed in on a trope definition, let’s illustrate it with some trope examples from film history.
MacGuffin Trope Examples
Breaking Down the MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is one of the great movie tropes. This device is a figurative object, question, or person within a story that drives the plot forward, ultimately proving meaningless by the third act.
In Mr. Arkadin, the MacGuffin is the title character
The secret identity of the title character Mr. Arkadin is the MacGuffin of the film. Although it serves as the driving force through the films first two acts, it proves unimportant by the end.
The Maltese Falcon: the quintessential example of a MacGuffin
Many movie tropes of the film noir era are MacGuffins, and The Maltese Falcon is no exception. The statue itself is the MacGuffin of the film as it connects the characters and moves the plot forward. But by the third act, The Maltese Falcon is much more about the characters than the statue.
Western Movie Tropes
The Wild West Showdown
Just because a trope is popular doesn’t mean that it’s a cliche.
The Wild West showdown is one of the most iconic climaxes of all time. The quick-draw, one-shot kill in showdowns is arguably a cliche, but that doesn’t mean the entire premise is cliche. Plenty of directors can use it to subvert our expectations in new and exciting ways.
In StudioBinder's breakdown of the Spahn Ranch sequence from Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, you can see how Quentin Tarantino's directing style reshapes the classic Western showdown to keep audiences on their toes:
In the scene below, from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen take one of the most well-known movie tropes (the wild west showdown) and turn it on its head. By changing the tone of the scene, they also make the trope fun and fresh for the audience.
Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows Western gunplay in a fresh way
And in this video, the films of the Coen brothers, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, and Ang Lee are considered as examples of how Western trope meaning is redefined to subvert the genre.
Trope meaning is reshaped in these subversive Westerns
In the sci-fi television show The Expanse, two characters have a showdown in space. It’s set up exactly like the cliched climax we’ve come to expect, but something essential makes it different.
The context of the scene parallels the new frontier of intergalactic travel to that of the wild west. This is one of those trope examples that shows how a device is transformed by its figurative setting: The ensuing showdown affirms the cliche, but applies it in a new way.
Two characters overcome differences
One oft-used trope looks like this: two characters are forced to work together despite their differences. But what is a trope’s tipping point — the point at which it devolves into cliche?
If, like so many films throughout history, the two characters initially undergo some period of drama but end up as best friends, that’s probably a sign that the trope is now a cliche. But there are also some great examples of how character tropes are used to subvert that pattern of expectation.
What is a trope? This character relationship in Touch of Evil
The two characters who are forced to work together in Touch of Evil could not get along worse than they do. Rather than strive toward the same goal, Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Vargas (Charlton Heston) do everything to stop one another.
To avoid turning character tropes into cliches, you might consider taking a comedic approach to your story:
The Other Guys satirizes character tropes
The Other Guys’ character tropes do exactly that — pitting cops Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) against one another while still pushing them toward the same shared goal. The film’s character tropes subvert cliche by exaggerating the tension we come to expect from two people who don’t initially get along.
Difference Between Tropes & Cliches
Trope vs cliche
Still confused? Here’s another simple way to think about trope vs cliche.
Movie tropes are general objects, people, or situations with figurative meaning. They can be used effectively in scripts by subverting or exaggerating a presumed cliche.
Cliches are something that we expect to happen.
As you write, it may help to ask yourself about these key differences so you can find your own way of using a trope to subvert cliche.
What is a trope?
A character in your film is stalked by a zombie.
What is a cliche?
When the character in your film is caught by a zombie, the zombie eats his brains.
How can the trope subvert the cliche?
When the character in your film is caught by a zombie, the zombie gives him his wallet, which fell out of his pocket.
Understanding the fundamental differences between tropes and cliches will open up a whole world of creative possibilities.
Know your cliches
We’ve talked about what makes tropes and cliches different. Up next, we’ll define what a cliche is by looking at some specific movie examples. By the end, you’ll be an expert on catching them so they won’t infect your script.