TV Terms: What is a trope?

I’m not going to just list a bunch of tropes at you. Other people already do that. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, especially in the context of a Jack in the Box commercial:

In the commercial, Jack announces to his restaurant executives that they are going to start serving brunch all day. One of the executives asks why, and we flash back to Jack sitting on his couch, watching TV with his pregnant (presumably) wife, who announces that she’s craving brunch and that Jack should start serving brunch all day at his restaurant. When Jack dismisses her, she casually mentions that she could invite her mom to stay with them, and the horror music in (presumably) Jack’s head transitions us back to the present.

Commercials only have 30 seconds to tell a story, and so they often rely on tropes to get complex ideas across. In this case, the dominant tropes are that pregnant women have cravings and are unreasonable, and that men do not get along with their mothers-in-law. The commercial doesn’t have to show us Jack’s past interactions with his mother-in-law. A few seconds of horror movie music (also a trope, in that you can recognize horror movie music without knowing the specific movie it came from) and a culture wherein all media has been depicting mothers-in-law as shrill harpies conditions us to understand that this is the relationship, and Jack is being threatened by his wife.

Tropes are shorthand, and that makes it easy to think of them as lazy and bad, but sometimes they’re necessary. Especially when you’re establishing character, you often need the quickest cheats possible so that you can get to the story. A character appearing with disheveled hair can get the point across that they’re overwhelmed much faster than watching them try to get to all of their appointments, and if the story is not about getting to those appointments, then you want that part over with as quickly as possible. (Never mind that in real life, being busy almost never results in frizzy hair. The audience has been conditioned (ha!) to understand it that way.)

Which is not to say that tropes are never lazy and bad. Tropes are so common that it can be difficult to recognize them, but as a writer it’s important to know when you’re using them and do it deliberately. The writers of the Jack in the Box commercial may not have been aware that the nagging mother-in-law is a trope that they were using (although they would have understood that this was a concept everyone would understand, they may not have taken the time to consider why or had the vocabulary to name it a trope). And that’s a problem, because that particular trope is Sexist AF (“as fuck”). Many tropes are so culturally ingrained that we’ve all grown up with them, but culture changes much faster than tropes do, so many tropes that we today recognize as Racist or Sexist or Homophobic AF (or would if we thought about them) are still in use. It’s especially infuriating when you realize that although Jack in the Box decided to go with a Sexist AF trope, the most obvious one for them would target a stoner audience. So they reached to be sexist. They put effort into it.

One of the best ways to be sure you’re not using the wrong kind of trope is to make sure that your characters are completely and fully fleshed-out. Is the boss a cold bitch because that’s a trope, or because her parents were addicts and she spent her whole life trying desperately to control the people around her? (And are you planning on fleshing that out in the context of the story?) If a reader tells you that you’re using a trope, what they often mean is that this feels like it’s been done before and you should try to be more original. Having complex, complete backstories is a good way to make that happen – and something you should be doing anyway.

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About Generation Coax

I am an aspiring TV writer, amateur photographer, and craft hobbyist.
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