In 2017, Netflix released the feature-length film Bright to a response that I could only describe as a siege of boos and rotten tomatoes. IndieWire film critic David Ehrlich opened his review by labeling Bright as the “worst movie of 2017.” Writer and film critic Lindsay Ellis subsequently published a video essay where she spends nearly forty-five (delightful) minutes shredding the movie’s dearth of developed characters, haphazardly-assembled plot, poor editing choices, and half-baked worldbuilding.
What stood out to me the most upon my viewing of Bright was how “tropey” or reductive it felt. Bright was littered with tropes from across multiple genres — the Dark Lord, the secret Chosen One, the Cop Duo, the fantasy MacGuffin, to name a few. Yet, the film did nothing with them. And that is typically the problem with “tropey” books or films, and why they feel derivative.
The word “trope” is often used as a pejorative in and of itself, but it's better to think of it as a neutral term. Tropes are simply communication tools and aren’t inherently harmful to use in your stories. In fact, if executed well, tropes allow you to do very interesting things as a creator.
What is a trope and how are they used well?
When discussing literature, the term “trope” originally applied to figurative language, such as hyperboles, metaphors, synecdoches, and metonyms. These were features of classical rhetoric and continue to appear in writing and speech today; however, they are increasingly dissociated from the word “trope.”
Nowadays, a “trope” often refers to narrative techniques or genre conventions that authors employ in order to convey information to the audience in an efficient manner. Tropes act as recognizable shorthand, whether they take the form of character archetypes, visual cues, or plot patterns.
For example, there is a pattern in the fantasy genre of employing a naive hero as the audience avatar and a mentor figure to guide the hero (and audience). Think of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, or J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or the anime My Hero Academia, or the video game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. The reason why the Naive Hero and Mentor archetypes are common is that fantasy worlds are different than ours and often require the creator to provide substantial explanations in order for the audience to meaningfully follow the story.
Creators could achieve this through “info dumps,” where the author or an in-universe character assaults the audience with a wall of information about the world, but those suck. You’re not reading, playing, or watching fiction for the taxonomy of made-up alien species, or a full-length history of a magical kingdom that you don’t care about. No, you only care about those things when the story you’re following makes you care. This is why when Obi-Wan is teaching Luke about the Force, the audience is also invested, or why Simba learning about the Pride Lands from Mufasa in The Lion King doesn’t feel like the creators are just telling you this information.
Decorating trope cakes
I like to think of using tropes in fiction like how a baker decorates a fancy cake. The familiarity of tropes acts as a fast and convenient cake base and frees up a creator’s time to create gorgeous decorations (I imagined Paul Hollywood’s voice as I typed that sentence). This is where tropes truly shine.
To continue the running Star Wars theme and to revisit the Mentor trope, let’s take the version of Luke Skywalker we meet in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the film, Luke is written in a role similar to Master Yoda or Obi-Wan: a wise mentor figure to teach the protagonist, Rey, things that she needs to learn for both the plot and her character arc. So far, Luke is just a base of instantly-recognizable trope sponge cake — we’ve seen this a million times before, even within the Star Wars universe. However, Rian Johnson uses this trope to explore a multitude of new questions in the Star Wars movie franchise (yes, I know that other Star Wars media has explored themes similar to what The Last Jedi explored, but not everyone has played Knights of the Old Republic II — we’re just talking about the movies here). Luke is a reluctant mentor and the audience quickly learns that he has become disillusioned with the ways of the Jedi. While Luke goes through the motions of the Mentor trope in teaching Rey lessons on the Force, he specifically critiques the teachings of the Jedi Order. This opens a new door for Rey’s journey, a “gray path” in a series that had previously presented black and white ethics.
I’ll move on from the Mentor to a new trope: the Chosen One. This trope typically involves a protagonist (or in some cases, an antagonist) who through various means, is selected as the only entity capable of resolving the plot conflict.
While I previously pointed this trope out as a reason for Bright’s unoriginality, it’s not inherently bad. There are plenty of instances where authors or directors use this trope to provoke interesting emotions or challenge audience expectations. Take for example the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar Aang is a Chosen One through divine, cosmic duty. The plot conflict of the series forces Aang to stop the fascistic Fire Lord from conquering and subjugating the world. Aang is the only character that is powerful enough to achieve this goal, but his responsibility vis-à-vis his code of ethics makes for interesting television. Aang is a pacifist and struggles substantially with what his cosmic role demands of him. This results in the protagonist discovering an option that meets his own sense of justice while succeeding in what the world needs him to do. Although certainly not original, this trope allows the creators of the show to explore interesting philosophical questions that I had never seen in children’s media before.
For a different example of the Chosen One done right, look no further than George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire. The book series is chock-full of characters who believe or are told that they are chosen ones, but I find Daenerys to be the most interesting of the bunch because the trope’s appearance is indirect. She is presented to the audience as the “rightful heir” to the throne of Westeros, and much of her story arc in the books revolves around her seeking her supposed destiny. This more neatly fits another trope, the Rightful Heir; although that trope is later subverted in the television adaptation’s controversial final season. Daenerys’ backstory is littered with prophecies and since she is a point-of-view character, we see her grappling with her own expectations and those of her advisors. However, the Chosen One trope is not the basis of her character, but rather an auxiliary aspect, or a flavoring, if you will. It adds to her pathos and makes her even more fascinating and three-dimensional.
I could keep going, but I think I’ve proven my point about good uses of tropes in fiction. That being said, tropes are not inherently beneficial.
Bad uses of tropes, or outdated tropes
If done well, tropes should blend into the background of the story, providing structure for more engaging content; however, it is when they fail at this job that we notice them. Bad uses of tropes are when creators insert them as integral parts of the plot or of character arcs, but without comment, expansion, or exploration.
Let’s circle back to the film I first mentioned in this article, Bright. At the end of the film, Ward is suddenly revealed to be the Chosen One, destined to save Los Angeles from the return of the Dark Lord. This revelation about the protagonist happens at the very end of the story with almost no foreshadowing or meditation after the film’s climax. It feels lazy as a result, like a resolution that’s entirely unearned. Netflix just served us a pile of plain, crumbly, overbaked sponge cake, all without any frosting.
While some tropes are solely bad with poor execution, other tropes have aged out of use. Humans have told stories from time immemorial, so narrative conventions naturally reflect the temporal values of societies. Since values change over time, so do tropes. This is why today we find certain tropes of the past unfavorable. Take for example the long-standing Damsel in Distress trope, or Death by Sex trope typically found in twentieth-century horror movies — both of which are particularly punishing toward women. Sometimes these tropes fall out of favor simply because of their moral implications, while other tropes age due to audience expectations for stories.
An aged trope that falls in the latter category (and one that I particularly loathe) is called Deus ex Machina, or “god out of the machine.” This refers to the plot technique of resolving the primary conflict of a story by means unrelated to the actions of the story’s characters. While this trope was common in ancient Greek theatre, it has critically and popularly fallen out of favor. It is hard to use the Deus ex Machina trope in an interesting manner because it is a self-contained resolution, stripping the characters of all agency and responsibility. To return to the punching bag of this article, the revelation of Ward’s Chosen One status in the climax of Bright is a Deus ex Machina of sorts. The conflict of the story is suddenly resolved because — surprise — the protagonist inexplicably has the special power to destroy the film’s antagonist and prevent a catastrophe and major character’s death, even though all other humans in the film have died horribly from doing the same thing that Ward did.
In a looser sense, Deus ex machina can also apply to sub-conflicts or character drama resolved by “an act of god” (i.e. the writer’s hand). I would argue that the resolution of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor in the 2003 movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King is a case of Deus ex machina. When Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring at Mount Doom, they are subsequently trapped when the volcano erupts. It appears as though the heroes are going to die when suddenly, giant eagles appear and carry them away to safety. While the eagles were briefly in the previous film and were therefore established as “characters” of sorts, their arrival was seemingly unrelated to the actions of the heroes or the progression of events that led up to their situation. Instead of feeling like a dramatic twist, the event feels like a convenient yet unlikely way to save Frodo and Sam from the brink of death.
While tropes can be overused, or used poorly, or reflect values that a majority of people no longer hold, I hope I have demonstrated that they aren’t inherently problematic. Tropes can be a creator’s friend when used smartly, a way to set audiences’ expectations or subvert them. They can help facilitate engaging stories that challenge norms, ask tough questions, examine interesting ideas, or speculate possible futures. I suppose you could write a story without a single literary device guiding you, but I’d hope you’d forgive this writer and reader for passing on your work!