35 Movie Tropes and How to Avoid Them in Screenwriting
Most audiences can agree that movies often lose their impact when writers cut corners and rely on cliches and overused movie tropes.
But what exactly is a movie trope?
A movie trope is a commonly used device or motif very familiar in both its conception and execution.
Movie tropes don’t always have to be bad. In comedy, a movie trope might be used for laughs, for example. Or a thriller or drama might use a movie trope to play with audience expectations.
However, it’s important to make sure you’re not relying on tropes where you could be using other, more effective and original storytelling techniques.
First let’s take a look at some of the most common movie tropes used today. We’ll then asses how best to avoid them in your own writing.
Examples of Movie Tropes
- Aliens – Anytime there’s aliens in a movie, they always want to invade Earth (by Earth they mean America). It will feel a trope when the motivation for the Alien’s invasion seems fuzzy (like Independence Day but unlike Arrival).
- Undead – Never, ever turn your back on the bad guy you killed. Odds are, he’ll magically survive that bullet to the chest and will make you pay for it in 3, 2, 1…
- Villain’s Throne – Protagonist walks into a dark room, turns on a light, and there’s the antagonist quietly waiting in his huge, dramatic chair. Bonus points if they’re petting a cat on their lap.
- Hot and Cold – Will they or won’t they? Well, we all know that they will eventually, especially if the series is wrapping up.
- High Heels Horror Woman – A woman in a horror movie runs from the killer in high heels. It is an inevitability that she’ll trip and lay there helplessly until the killer comes to murder her.
- Walking From an Explosion – Nothing says you’re a macho action hero like silently walking away from a giant explosion. A movie trope that often defies physics.
- My Hero – Having some trouble getting the girl? Just save her life, then she’ll magically fall into your arms!
- Misguided Dad – A father who is more focused on his career then his family. Don’t worry, there’s always some kind of external force that magically switches his thinking or forces him to change.
- Whoops, Didn’t See You There – Movies love to show people constantly bumping into each other – literally. Even if it happens in real life, it often isn’t the meetcute moment it’s portrayed as on screen.
- Age Old Wisdom – Everybody knows that the wisest characters are also usually the oldest. They’re also probably a man with a long beard and glasses. (Think Dumbledore)
- “A Wise Person Once Told Me” – Speaking of wise people, movies love characters repeating knowledge that was shared to them an hour ago (screen time).
- The Trophy Wife – A problematic trope movies love to toss around. She’s young and beautiful, but also completely socially unaware and/or seriously lacking in intelligence. Oh, and she’s often blonde, two clichés for the price of one.
- Hello? – The Scene: A person returns home to find an eerie silence and the front door ajar. The Action: They inevitably always wander inside and ask “hello?” only to end up murdered.
- “He’s Right Behind Me, Isn’t He?” – What do characters love more than overconfident trash-talking? They love doing it while the person they’re talking about is right behind them. Awkward.
- Well That’s a Cliffhanger – The trope where someone is dangling off the edge of a cliff and faces certain death. Just as they begin to slip, the hero somehow manages to pull them to safety no matter how heavy they are or how strong the savior actually is.
- Geek to Chic – The magic solution that turns a geek into the hottest person around? All they need to do is lose the glasses! Once they’re off they suddenly develop a better style and a more extroverted and attractive personality. Who knew?
- “Psycho” Ex-Girlfriend – He, the completely level-headed male protagonist of the tale breaks up with her, only for her to turn into a crazy stalker/murderess/generally insane ex bent on destroying the beloved hero’s life (Gone Girl).
- Cut the Red Wire – Movies love portraying bombs with helpful, color-coded wires. This trope will likely also have the hero cut the wire (probably the red one) at the very last second.
- The Chosen One – Although they usually come from humble beginnings, they’ve always been destined for greatness. Everyone already knew it, except for the hero themselves. They never know because they’re always too humble, too focused on others, or too self-critical.
- Windows of the Soul – They say the eyes are the windows of the soul, but movies love showing characters able to know every thought just by looking into someone’s eyes.
- That Fat Friend – A trope where the random fat friend is the comic relief.
- Get This Bread – It doesn’t matter why a character went to the grocery store. Odds are, they’ll always come out with leafy green vegetables and delicious-looking baguettes poking out of their shopping bag.
- Kissus Interruptus – After about an hour of build up, it’s finally happening. Our male and female protagonists are finally looking deep into each others eyes. They lean forward, the audience leans forward and then… the kiss is interrupted by a completely oblivious friend or family member. The two jump apart and the kiss is postponed.
- The Key to Keys – Who would ever actually leave their keys under the mat or in the visor? Probably nobody but everyone in movies does it.
- “Gimme a Beer” – In movies, characters always ask for a beer and the bartender always immediately gives it to them without questions about brand, type, etc. Try that at your local bar this weekend and see how far you get.
- Terrible Henchman – Great villains require great henchmen, so why is it they often can’t even hit the broad side of a barn? They seem like obvious filler for the hero to strike off on their way to the main villain.
- Narrator – You know that voiceover narration you’ve been hearing for an hour and a half? Odds are that there will be a big reveal showing a character we know writing it all down.
- Coming in Hot – Immediate action is great, but the big action scene followed by “X Hours Earlier” trope feels played out. If you need to jump straight to the middle of the movie to keep our attention, then perhaps you need a more compelling first act.
- Off the Case – A character is forced off a case and then try to solve it anyways. Ooh, vigilante justice.
- Youthful Awareness – Are the adults clueless? Never fear, there’s always a little kid who is way more aware than the grownups. Their wisdom betrays their years.
- Love Triangle – Is there anything more cliched than an old-fashioned long triangle? Yes, actually – a love triangle consisting of two very attractive, opposite young men and an everyday girl that they think is extraordinary!
- Get the Gun Already! – Why do the bad guys always pin the good guy down inches near the gun? Just kick it away first! The good guy will grope at the gun for several minutes while getting choked. Of course they will finally grab it just in time.
- Cut It Out– A trope consisting of a character’s trauma represented by them cutting their own hair. When they inevitably do it, how are they able to magically give themselves the perfect bob?
- Zoom, Zoom – A character is looking at a photo with seemingly nothing of interest about it until they suddenly decide to zoom and bingo, there hidden is either something suspicious or something they have been looking for.
- Mirror Scare – It’s like a jump scare, but even more cliched. If a horror movie character opens the medicine cabinet, there’s a 99% chance something terrifying will be in the reflection upon closing it.
How to Avoid These Movie Tropes
The first step to avoiding movie tropes them is to be aware of them.
This will come inevitably from watching as much movies and TV as you can. Soak yourself in the medium and you will soon come to inherently recognise what is overused. You’ll then be able to reflect in your screenwriting more original ideas.
Beyond that though, there’s a few helpful tips that might come in handy to avoid using movie tropes.
While crafting your characters, keep these things in mind:
- Avoid generalities/vagueness – Audiences want characters who are clearly defined. They need motivations, flaws, conflict, and agency. Without these things, they can easily become a stock character. We want them to feel real and real people have conflicting attitudes, good and bad traits, and a reason for the things they do.
- Make them relatable but avoid making them an audience stand-in. The second you make them a stand-in, they no longer have a defined identity. No defined identity = no nuance = trope.
- Don’t ruin them with bad dialogue! The majority of the time, what somebody says is our glimpse into who they are. Don’t waste it. Make dialogue meaningful.
- Ensure your characters have space to grow. If they begin the story super competent, it’s often a sign you’re relying too heavily on an established role. If you give them ways they can change, improve, and advance, odds are they have a personality that can distinguish them.
Of course, characterization isn’t the only thing separating good writing from a film full of cliches and movie tropes.
Plots and themes can also fall into that category. One of the easiest ways you can combat falling into this is to embrace uncertainty in your screenwriting.
- After all, the entire problem of tropes is that we know exactly what they are and where they’re from.
- Embracing uncertainty completely pushes against that idea and disallows it from taking hold.
- Allow your characters to not always know what other characters are thinking.
- Allow space for miscommunication and for hidden motivations, because those allow natural tension and immersion to happen.
- Additionally, allow uncertainties in your plot.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a defined plan. But it does mean you don’t need to completely follow the plan to a T. Avoiding tropes means embracing depth, so allow your story a little wiggle room.
It’s okay if not everything wraps up in a neat little bow at the end and it’s okay for the audience to walk away with questions.
More Ways to Avoid Movie Tropes
- Do your research. If you are writing about an unfamiliar place, event, etc., make sure to read up about it before putting pen to paper. Relying on just a handful of accounts or common knowledge is a sure way to embrace the cliche. Once again, the enemy of tropes is depth. Give all your plot elements, settings, and characters depth!
- Resist Conformity. Don’t conform to a particular already-known narrative arc or screenplay structure just because you think it will generate tension, suspense or sadness, for example. Your story is your own.
- Branch out from the typical movie themes. There’s nothing wrong writing a movie about the power of friendship or about lost love… but it does leave you more vulnerable to doing what’s been done before. Embracing unexpected themes can free you from this. Interrogate what you want to say with your script. Why are you telling this story and what do you want to say?
- Throw your characters into the worst-case scenario. Overused character types and plots often give the hero the easy way out. Allow them to experience pain, guilt, and loss. Allow evil to conquer good for once. Let your hero embrace darker emotions and embrace actions that aren’t squeaky clean. Let them gain a few scars and allow their morality to not be so black and white.
Thought of any other tropes we should add to our list? Have any other advice for fellow readers on how to avoid these common movie tropes?
Leave us a comment below.