I went out into the world one sunny morning with a single word on my mind: trope.
Few people know the plight of the tropes, and—in fact—these literary creatures are highly misunderstood. How do I know? When I asked random denizens what they thought a trope was, here were some of the quite baffled responses:
- A fish
- Some form of a sexually transmitted disease
- A made-up word
And my favorite . . .
- A trout-ape mix.
Needless to say, I think it’s time we shed some light on this matter.
If you ever happen to Google “trope” (and I implore you not to, for fear you will be overcome by the warfare surrounding the term and succumb to a mental state of befuddlement from which there is no return), you will find a variety of definitions and one phrase that continually resurfaces: figure of speech. In fact, the original word tropus translates from Latin into “a figure of speech.” But perhaps the Greek word fits it better: tropos, “a turn.” A trope in its simplest form is figurative words or expressions used for an artistic effect—resulting in a meaning that differs from the literal definition of the words. Hence, the meaning shifts from the literary to the abstract. Certainly, this can include a figure of speech, but it can also consist of other tools, like puns, metaphors, personification, oxymora, and a hole menagerie of similar beasts.
The trope is oftentimes overshadowed by the monstrous Theme, but they are very different reptiles. (Yes, apparently these creatures are classified under the reptilian division of storybook beings. Bear with my simple-minded imagination, please.) As we all know, a theme is a meaning or representation that may or may not be said explicitly in a work. A trope can certainly fall under this category, but its true utilization is much more diverse and much deeper. Tropes are pests. They infest stories across cultures, geography, and religions. They leap off the page to terrify or pacify readers. As such, tropes are oftentimes repeated throughout a genre, found as a meaning or device used consistently by authors.
But don’t think that because tropes are overused they are useless. In fact, similar to the flat or archetypal character, tropes are useful because of their commonality. To refer to the common tropes found in horror movies instantly brings to mind characters passing up the front door for the stairs, shadows slithering across ceilings, and a whole fun box of other images. Like a piece of art, these phrases, words, and abstract meanings are key to an entire universe shared by your readers and yet individualized by each of them.
So the next time you hear the word “trope” don’t run for fear you’ll be consumed by an ape-fish. Just take a breather and let yourself be swallowed by the world of abstract language.