The love-struck man desperately pursues his romantic interest through an airport at the last minute. The bad guys patiently wait their turns to attack the hero. When they fire their weapons, none can hit the broad side of a barn. The characters split up inside a shadowy home where the killer resides. A soldier pulls a grenade pin out with his teeth, and the explosion that follows is big and fiery. Watch enough films or television shows, and you’ll see these instances repeatedly. Some people call them “cliches” or “stereotypes.” Another synonym— “tropes.”
“Tropes” are a dime a dozen. They can be found in nearly every genre of entertainment we engage in. Horror movies, rom-coms, fantasies, buddy films, stand-up comedy routines, slapstick romps, and even nonfictional, news-anchor shows are filled with them.
Kids come downstairs to a full, continental breakfast, take a few bites, and leave. The school bus always picks them up right in front of their house. They head to a high school where every student (freshman to senior) looks like they’re in their 30s. Meanwhile, the kids’ parents always find a convenient parking spot right in front of where they work. They end up running late to their boardroom meetings where every Power-point slide contains a pie chart.
Down the hall from the working parents, a young, 20s-some “small town girl” (who came to the big city to become a successful magazine writer) pens a few emotional articles. She’ll “never find true love,” so she sadly walks back to her spacious 2-bedroom, midtown Manhattan apartment. Her friendly, run-of-the-mill male roommate (who she is of course secretly in love with but isn’t aware of at the time) makes pasta for the two of them.
The male roommate’s father is just a regular guy…a police officer just a few days away from retirement. Little does this police officer know that he’ll end up foiling a massive terrorist plot. He’ll climb through an air vent, take a bullet to the chest (which he’ll casually pluck out with tweezers), and then leap a thousand feet into a body of water (not suffering any injuries whatsoever). That…or he’ll plummet off the side of a building, and the roof of an automobile will cushion his fall.
There are probably hundreds…thousands of these entertainment patterns you can think of. The good guy calmly walks away from a fiery explosion. Villains always deliver a protracted monologue. Enemies turn to lovers. The protagonist always gives a stirring speech before the final battle, and…everyone’s favorite…romantic fights always begin with “I can explain.”
Where do these “tropes” come from? Why do they emerge? Do viewers enjoy them? As far as the latter goes, it varies. Some “tropes” are charming, while others are annoying. But as far as where “tropes” come from and why they emerge, this is the classic, Wildean question. “Does life imitate art or art imitate life?” Somewhere out there…at some point in time, some retiring police officer came back for one more gig, some girl from Iowa moved to Brooklyn and ran into a former love interest of hers from her small town, and some expert driver cleared a drawbridge with his Mustang (maybe??).
We engage in the world we live in narratively…whether we want to or not. Our lives can become comedies (stories with happy endings) or tragedies (stories with sad or unfortunate endings). Obviously, we want the former, but the latter is not always the worst type of ending. A person can live a wonderful life—filled with great achievements and the love of many close friends and family—and then slowly die from a horrible illness. Was that person’s life a comedy or tragedy?
Our inclination may be to say a tragedy, but, even so, it wouldn’t be the ultimate tragedy. Suppose the above person dies from the same slow, horrible illness, but he also lived a lonely, miserable life where he achieved nothing, and nobody loved him. That isn’t mere tragedy. That’s Hell! Or…maybe he lived a very lonely and miserable life, but one day he acquired a great friend, and the rest of his life was joyful. Would we deem that a “comedy”? Potentially. Remember that Dante’s great “Divine Comedy” literally starts out in Hell.
The famous Swiss psychiatrist had another term for what we may call “tropes.” He called them “archetypes.” “Archetypes” include (but are certainly not limited to) the “Evil Stepmother” (Cinderella, e.g.), the “Benevolent Father” (Pinocchio’s Geppetto, e.g.), the “Trickster” (Rafiki, The Lion King, e.g.), and the “Tragic Hero” (Anakin Skywalker, Star Wars, e.g.). They are constantly recurring motifs or symbols that emerge across various times and cultures and…essentially…they reside in our “collective consciousness.” “Archetypes” have a way of immediately and undeniably making perfect intuitive sense (even if we don’t know why).
The famous evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, had a modified term for this phenomenon. He called these little slices of evolving, proliferating human culture “memes.” No…not those kinds of “memes.” Not Willy Wonka, Jim from The Office, or Homer Simpson. Dawkinsean “memes” cover a much broader range of things. Coca Cola is a “meme.” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a “meme.” Saying “Hey. How are you doing?” That’s a “meme.” Shaking hands is a “meme.” Having weddings, birthday parties, and Christmas celebrations are also all “memes.” And so on and so forth.
So where do we categorize “tropes”? Are they archetypal? Sometimes. An archetype, though, usually exists at the deepest level of human culture…the level that verges on if not outright comprises the religious. “Tropes” are usually lighter than that. We also generally confine them to the narrative, entertainment realm. Thus, we don’t usually categorize them alongside Coke bottles, handshakes, and other “memes.” I suppose it’s safe to say, then, that “tropes” are their own special entities. We love them, we hate them, and sometimes, we don’t even notice them. Keep an eye out for them, though, the next time you watch a film or TV show. You’ll probably spot more than you can count on both your hands!