Tropes can take two forms: rhetorical tropes and literary tropes. We’ll explore both in this article.
Here are definitions to orient you:
Rhetorical tropes are “twists and turns” in writing that take the form of figurative language. They include literary devices such as metaphor, simile, allegory, and irony.
Literary tropes are “twists and turns” in the plotlines and narratives of stories. These include well-worn plotlines like the love triangle or the hero’s journey, as well as literary motifs like the bumbling sidekick or the fatally flawed protagonist.
That’s a lot to take in – so let’s take them one at a time, starting with rhetorical tropes.
1. Rhetorical Tropes
Definition: A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action as something other than what it truly is, without using “like” or “as.”
Example: The world is a stage.
Definition: A simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things using “like” or “as.”
Example: Her smile was as bright as the sun.
Definition: Hyperbole is a figure of speech that involves exaggeration for emphasis or effect.
Example: I’ve told you a million times.
Definition: An understatement is a figure of speech in which something is intentionally represented as less significant or severe than it actually is.
Example: It’s just a scratch, when referring to a large dent in a car.
Definition: Personification is a figure of speech where non-human objects or abstract concepts are given human qualities or emotions.
Example: The wind whispered through the trees.
Definition: An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms are combined to create a unique expression.
Example: Deafening silence.
Definition: Irony is a figure of speech where the intended meaning is opposite to the literal or usual meaning, often used for emphasis or humor.
Example: Saying “Oh, great!” when something bad happens.
Definition: Litotes is a figure of speech that uses understatement by negating the opposite, often to emphasize or soften a point.
Example: It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.
Definition: Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate the natural sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.
Definition: Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of something represents the whole, or vice-versa.
Example: All hands on deck.
Definition: Metonymy is a figure of speech where one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it’s closely associated, often based on a material, causal, or conceptual relationship.
Example: The White House issued a statement.
Definition: Anaphora is a rhetorical device where consecutive clauses or sentences start with the same word or phrase for emphasis.
Example: We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields.
Definition: Epistrophe is a rhetorical device where consecutive clauses or sentences end with the same word or phrase for emphasis.
Example: Where now? Who now? When now?
Definition: A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt.
Example: Passed away instead of died.
Definition: A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory or absurd but may actually express a deeper truth.
Definition: A character believed to be the sole person selected, often by prophecy or destiny, to achieve a particular goal or to fulfill a specific role.
Example: Harry Potter in the “Harry Potter” series.
Definition: A powerful antagonist who rules or commands a significant malicious force or empire.
Example: Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Definition: A romantic relationship involving three individuals, where each has some level of romantic interest or affection for at least one of the others.
Example: Bella, Edward, and Jacob in “Twilight.”
Damsel in Distress
Definition: A female character who is placed in a perilous situation and requires rescue, often by a male hero.
Example: Princess Peach in the “Super Mario” games.
Definition: A misleading clue or distraction that diverts attention away from the actual issue, often used in mystery genres.
Example: False suspects in a detective story.
In Medias Res
Definition: A narrative that begins in the middle of the action, rather than from the story’s start.
Example: “The Odyssey” by Homer.
Definition: An element introduced early in a story that becomes significant later on.
Example: A character finding a mysterious key in the first act and using it in the third act.
Definition: An object or device in a story that serves as a trigger for the plot, but its specific nature or purpose is unimportant to the overall story.
Example: The briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”
Definition: A character who, while loyal and often endearing, is clumsy, inept, or foolish, providing comic relief.
Example: Donkey in “Shrek.”
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Definition: A female character who exists to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.
Example: Summer in “(500) Days of Summer.”
Dark and Troubled Past
Definition: A backstory for a character that includes significant trauma, loss, or other negative events, often explaining their current behavior or motivations.
Example: Batman’s witnessing of his parents’ murder.
Definition: A character known for their sarcastic and often emotionless retorts.
Example: Chandler Bing in “Friends.”
Definition: A protagonist who lacks traditional heroic qualities and might possess attributes typically associated with villains.
Example: Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”
Definition: A character who provides guidance, wisdom, and training to a younger or less experienced character.
Example: Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid.”
Fish out of Water
Definition: A character placed in an unfamiliar environment, leading to comedic or dramatic situations.
Example: Buddy in “Elf.”
Definition: A storyline centered around a character seeking vengeance for a wrong done to them or someone they care about.
Example: “Kill Bill” series.
Definition: A sequence of scenes showing a character undergoing intensive training, usually accompanied by music.
Example: Rocky’s training in “Rocky.”
The Big Race
Definition: A climactic event or competition where characters must prove themselves or achieve a significant goal.
Example: The podrace in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”
Definition: A character who is presented as the protagonist early in the story but is later revealed not to be the main character.
Example: Marion Crane in “Psycho.”
Definition: The last woman standing in a horror film, often after confronting the killer or monster.
Example: Laurie Strode in “Halloween.”
Definition: A significant plot twist or revelation that changes the audience’s understanding of the story.
Example: The identity of Keyser Söze in “The Usual Suspects.”
Definition: A journey towards a specific goal or location, often facing various challenges along the way.
Example: The journey to destroy the One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Definition: A story that focuses on the growth and personal development of a young protagonist as they transition into adulthood.
Example: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.
Definition: An influential character or entity that is often referred to but never actually appears on screen or page.
Example: “Big Brother” in “1984” by George Orwell.
Definition: A plot device where a character loses their memory, often leading to the rediscovery of their past or identity.
Example: Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Identity.”
Definition: A protagonist with a fatal flaw that leads to their downfall, despite any noble or heroic qualities they may possess.
Example: Oedipus in “Oedipus Rex.”
Definition: A romantic relationship that faces external obstacles, such as family disapproval, societal norms, or cultural barriers.
Example: Romeo and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Definition: A spectral character who, rather than being malevolent, assists or befriends living characters.
Example: Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Time Travel Paradox
Definition: A situation in a time-travel narrative where actions in the past affect the future in ways that create logical contradictions.
Example: Marty McFly’s actions in 1955 affecting his own existence in “Back to the Future.”
Definition: A character who embodies the concept of innate goodness, uncorrupted by civilization or society.
Wise Old Sage
Definition: An elderly character who provides wisdom, guidance, and often possesses special knowledge or abilities.
Example: Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Definition: A character’s concealed persona, kept hidden from the general public or from certain adversaries.
Example: Clark Kent as Superman’s secret identity.
Definition: A location believed to be inhabited by spirits or supernatural entities, often the setting for horror stories.
Example: The Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”
Definition: A speculative setting where society has degraded, often due to oppressive governments, environmental collapse, or other catastrophic events.
Example: Panem in “The Hunger Games.”
Definition: A plot where extraterrestrial beings invade Earth, either for conquest, colonization, or other motives.
Example: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.
Before you Go
Tropes are often based on the Jungian archetypes, which are a range of culturally-understood character tripes that, according to Jung, we all have in our subconsciousness. It’s worth checking out my article on Jungian archetypes to learn about these character tropes, such as the hero and caregiver archetypes.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]