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What Is a Trope?
The word trope comes from the Greek word tropos, meaning a turn or change of direction. Critics and scholars from the classical era through today have taken up the study of tropes, though over time the definition has changed somewhat. Where in classical rhetoric, a trope refers to a specific figure of speech or literary device.
When you’re reading a work of literature and start to recognize that the writer is making similar “moves” over and over, you’re picking up on some of that writer’s favored tropes.
What Is the Purpose of Literary Tropes?
All writers manipulate language to create certain effects. At the level of individual phrases and sentences, the skillful use of tropes is key to creating writing that’s fresh, memorable, and persuasive. Poets might spend hours trying to find just the right metaphor to capture a mood or sensation, while marketers might use antanaclasis to create a punchy catchphrase for a new product.
8 Examples of Tropes
Writers and critics have been categorizing and studying tropes for millenia, which means the names of many literary tropes are taken from classical rhetoric. There are dozens upon dozens of literary terms that function as rhetorical tropes, but here are eight of the most common examples:
- Metaphor is the art of describing one thing in terms of another. For example, “I have a bear of a problem” likens having a problem to dealing with a bear. A metaphor that is made explicit with “like” or “as” (i.e. “run like the wind”) is called a simile. Learn more about metaphors here.
- Metonymy substitutes an attribute of a thing for that thing’s proper name—for example, referring to the executive branch of the United States as “the White House.” Learn more about metonymy in our complete guide.
- Synecdoche is a special form of metonymy in which a part of something stands in for the whole. For example, referring to sailors as “hands” on a ship. Learn more about synecdoches in our article here.
- Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration for effect. Learn more about hyperboles in our guide here.
- Irony involves a statement that has a literal meaning that is at odds with the underlying meaning. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” is a classic example of irony. Learn more about irony here.
- Litotes is a form of irony in which a negative is used to affirm a positive, often through the use of double negatives—for example, saying “You’re not wrong” as a way of saying “You’re right.”
- Antanaclasis is a kind of pun that uses the same word in two different senses. A famous example comes from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
- Oxymoron describes a self-contradicting term that reveals some deeper truth or illustrates a paradox. For example, an underwhelming performance being greeted by a “deafening silence.” Learn more about oxymorons in our article here.
Modern Use of the Word Trope
Today, writers and critics frequently use the word trope to describe themes, motifs, plot devices, plot points, and storylines that have become familiar genre conventions. Pop culture is full of readily recognizable tropes which function as a shared vocabulary for readers, writers, and critics. For example, westerns typically include the trope of bad guys wearing black hats and good guys wearing white. Similarly, there are countless works of fantasy or science fiction that feature the "chosen one" trope, in which a main character like Harry Potter is uniquely called to defeat the dark lord. A romance novel might feature a classic boy meets girl scene and will likely employ a love triangle to complicate the plot before resolving into a happy ending. Certain tropes are more strongly associated with particular genres, but all genres, including literary fiction, make use of tropes.
It’s in this modern usage that the word trope can take on a pejorative connotation, since an over-reliance on common tropes can be a sign of lazy or bad writing. That’s not to say using tropes is a bad thing, but there’s a fine line between skillfully deploying a trope and overusing it to the point of cliche.
Tropes are one of the ways that readers can evaluate a writer’s skill with language and storytelling. When a trope is used cleverly or subverted in an unexpected way, it showcases the writer’s mastery of the genre. When used as a crutch, a trope demonstrates lazy writing and a lack of originality. The best way to learn to use tropes artfully is to develop a deep familiarity with your genre, whether it's sci-fi, thriller, fantasy, or romance. If you study the conventions of that genre, you’ll be better equipped to use its tropes to surprise and delight your readers.
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