Movie Tropes 101: Understanding (and Subverting) Storytelling Conventions

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Photo Source: “Challengers” Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Any time a rebellious cop plays by their own rules, a victim trips while running from a killer, or the hero finds a henchman who wears the exact same size as them, that’s a movie trope. Understanding the concept is the key to becoming a good storyteller; knowing when and how to twist and turn tropes is how you become a great one. Here’s what you need to know.


What is a movie trope?

A trope is a storytelling device, character, or theme that is common across genres and projects. Tropes are very common in film; they can be the basic structure on which a story hangs, or they can be used to subvert expectations and surprise audiences. There are no hard and fast rules with tropes as to whether you should conform to them, subvert them, or avoid them. It comes down to the individual trope and the story being told. 

Trope vs. cliche 

The difference between a trope and a cliche is really all in the connotations. Cliches are, by and large, negative feelings of familiarity. They result in audiences bumping against stereotypes or tired ideas. A trope, while conventional, is more of a stabilizing framework. Tropes are the backbone of story and genre, and allow creators to effectively guide the viewer along and subvert expectations. 

Examples of tropes

Assembling the team: Think of Akira Kurosawa’s action film “Seven Samurai,” or the massively influential franchise it inspired, George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” Much of the appeal of these films is the way they introduce disparate characters separately—surely, they can’t work together—and slowly turn them into a tight-knit team. (For the biggest version of this trope, look to the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced a handful of heroes in standalone films, then brought them together in Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers.”)

In Lucas’ first “Star Wars” movie, “Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope,” everyone has their own reason for joining the Rebel Alliance: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) feels a sense of destiny, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) looks to atone for past mistakes, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is there to get paid, and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) wants revenge for the destruction of her home planet. Tying these clashing personalities together is one of the most potent satisfying payoffs you can offer an audience.

One last job: Whether it’s an outlaw, an assassin, a secret agent, or otherwise, cinema is full of retired professionals pulled back into an extraordinary setting for “one last job.” James Mangold’s actioner “Logan” follows Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine long after his team of allies, the X-Men, have died. This is the antithesis of “bringing the team together”—emotionally, we watch Wolverine wrestle with being alone and, thanks to the arrival of daughter figure Laura (Dafne Keen), rediscover who he was in a former life.

The virgin survivor: First set in stone by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978, the slasher subgenre often sees the most “sinful” young characters—those who have sex, drink, smoke, etc.—dispatched brutally by the killer, while the most virtuous, virginal young woman (like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode) survives until the end. Follow-ups like Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th” (1980) and Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) returned to this trope so faithfully that University of California, Berkeley professor Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in a 1987 piece titled “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” 

Geek to beauty: Most often seen in romantic comedies, this trope owes a debt to George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” in which a speech expert makes a bet that he can pass off a poor flower seller as a duchess just by changing her Cockney accent. Classics like George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady,” starring Audrey Hepburn, and more recent examples like Robert Iscove’s “She’s All That,” Donald Petrie’s “Miss Congeniality,” and Garry Marshall’s “The Princess Diaries” have adopted the trope for stories about women who don’t, at first, conform to traditional beauty standards. It’s only through a makeover—often losing large glasses, unkempt hair, and an outdated wardrobe—that their love interest realizes they were beautiful all along. 

Death of the mentor: As outlined in Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, protagonists often meet a mentor who guides them through the strange new world they’ve journeyed into. The trope on top of this trope is that whenever the mentor dies, this motivates the hero to carry on when they might’ve turned back. Examples of this include Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in “Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope” and when Gandalf (Ian McKellen) sacrifices himself in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” so that Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) can continue his quest.

Will they/won’t they: From the screwball comedy days of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ 1940 film “His Girl Friday” to more modern pairings like Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams on ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” the will they/won’t they trope is a great way to keep audiences on the hook. Two characters who are essentially perfect for each other but kept apart for various reasons—their jobs, their relationships, their clashing personalities—repeatedly approach the boundary of becoming romantically involved.

The chosen one: Characters like Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker from “Star Wars,” and Neo from “The Matrix” all fit this bill—those who are prophesied to bring about an era of peace from a vastly more powerful evil. In many cases, the chosen one comes from humble beginnings; they’re the least likely choice to lead a revolution, making their ascension all the more compelling.

“You’re off the case”: When regular methods won’t get the job done, renegades like Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) from “Lethal Weapon,” Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) from “Beverly Hills Cop,” or Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) from “The Heat” will go outside the lines to capture their criminal target. Of course, a superior will demand they turn in their badge and gun, but these rogue heroes save the day regardless, earning back their job and the respect of their peers.

Love triangles: Romance stories need conflict, and the next best thing to the will they/won’t they trope is a love triangle. This trope sees three different characters tangled up with each other romantically, and within that framework lies all kinds of possibilities. Is one person simultaneously vying for the attention of two others? Are they friends with one, rivals with another? Is one option vastly more appropriate for the protagonist than the other? Films like 

“The Twilight Saga,” Sharon Maguire’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and Luca Guadagnino’s 2024 drama “Challengers” have explored the endless angles of a great love triangle.

“Say that again”: This trope comes in handy when you need to connect the dots of your plot. One character will say a seemingly offhand comment, which just happens to be the exact inspiration another character needs. Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” features a prime example. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) laments that 1.21 gigawatts is impossible to manufacture and can only be found in a “bolt of lightning.” Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) demands Doc repeat himself—having gone back in time, Marty knows exactly when a bolt of lightning will strike.

“In English, please”: This trope is a well-worn way to establish complex plot mechanics to the audience. A character who is an expert in their field will explain a complicated idea using highly technical language. A second character, a newcomer to that world, will ask them to back up and break it down in much simpler terms—“In English, please” is usually the snarky line. You’ll find an example in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” when astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) demonstrates his rescue plan using a stapler. 

The misguided parent: Both comedy and drama are full of dads and moms too focused on their career to properly raise their children. (There’s a lot of missed baseball games and dance recitals in cinema history.) By the end, the plot—whether realistic or fantastical—will reorient the parents’ priorities and demonstrate the importance of being present. Robert Stevenson’s 1964 classic “Mary Poppins” is possibly the prime example: George Banks (David Tomlinson) goes from being a stuffy bank manager to the type of father who flies a kite with his kids, thanks to the magical au pair’s interventions.

Rough guy with a proper lady: Adventure heroes love posh women, and posh women love adventure heroes. Films like Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Zemeckis’ “Romancing the Stone,” and Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” trade on the rough-and-ready scoundrel with poor table manners meeting his match in a prim-and-proper woman who doesn’t get her hands dirty. 

One crazy night: One of the most tried-and-true formats for film is a story that takes place over a single night and everything that could go wrong, does. This can fit any genre or tone. Michael Mann’s thriller “Collateral” sees a hit man (Tom Cruise) ask a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him to all his jobs for the night. Greg Mottola’s comedy “Superbad” tracks the winding journey of three high schoolers (Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as they attempt to reach a party with booze in hand. And Martin Scorsese’s ’80s crime flick “After Hours” sits in the middle of funny and tense, as normal office worker Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) just can’t seem to make it from downtown Manhattan back to his home uptown.

What to consider when using tropes

Audience awareness + opportunities for subversion: Audiences are astute. They know and recognize most tropes already. With a bit of skill, this can be a good thing. A familiar framework eases the viewer into the story, and learning how to create memorable twists and turns is a matter of subverting those well-worn expectations.

Let’s start with the most basic trope of them all: Good triumphs over evil. David Fincher’s bleak crime thriller “Se7en” sets up a triumphant ending in which detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) have serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in their custody. Very quickly, we realize Doe has planned for this—he has killed Mills’ pregnant wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and as predicted, Mills kills him in return. In keeping with Doe’s “seven deadly sins” plot, he himself stands for envy and Mills for wrath. In subverting the trope like this, Fincher demonstrates that good and evil are often intertwined, and there’s a gray area between justice and revenge.

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To get more granular, let’s take a look at a movie that subverted the “death of the mentor” trope—Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” While the film still functions as a typical origin story, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) travels to a remote location in the Himalayas to train under Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who teaches him the ways of the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his organization, the League of Shadows. After Bruce rejects the League’s murderous mandate, he saves Ducard from a fire in which Ra’s al Ghul seemingly dies.

However, in the film’s third act, we learn that not only is Ducard the real Ra’s al Ghul, but he plans to destroy Gotham City. In stopping Ducard, Bruce finally, fully becomes Batman. It wasn’t the death of a mentor that pushed him forward, but the survival of one.

Outdated ideas: By definition, tropes have been around for a long time. This means they can be a product of their time, becoming popular because of the climate they’re created in. Subverting such tropes is not only smart storytelling, but a rebuke to any underlying outdated messaging.

For example, the “final girl” trope is wrapped up in complicated sexism—the idea that a woman is rewarded for repressing or ignoring their sexuality. In “Scream” (1996), Craven—who helped create the idea of a final girl in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”—alludes to the archetype with the virginal Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who resists the urges of her boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich). The film plays with the history tropes in horror, with characters explicitly pointing out that the murders taking place follow the “rules” of the genre. However, Sidney loses her virginity before the third act and still emerges, alive, as the final girl—a nod from Craven as to the ways genre storytelling can evolve.

In her Oscar-nominated 2023 comedy “Barbie,” Greta Gerwig satirized the “geek to beauty” trope. In a bid to topple the hypermasculine patriarchy established by the Kens, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) adds this to the plan: “We’ll distract them with the old standby—wearing glasses so that they can discover that you’re pretty.”