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10 Storytelling Tropes You Didn’t Know You Knew

After thousands of years of storytelling, no story is so different that it has no similarity to anything else ever written.

Robert McKee

If you had to write a film script, how would you end the story? There are an infinite number of ways. And you don’t even know what the story is about yet. Still, I suppose you can quickly come up with a few ideas by drawing on story endings you already know. In other words, you can rely on storytelling tropes, narrative elements an audience recognises consciously or unconsciously. We can think of them as recurring devices across all stories ever told. Storytelling features that can relate to characters, plot points, themes, symbols or locations.

With a thousand years of storytelling behind us, there are myriads of such narrative shortcuts. I’ve compiled ten of my favourite ones. So put on your plot armour and grab your clipboard of authority. Here are ten storytelling tropes you didn’t know you knew.

1. Clipboard of Authority

Storytelling Tropes
Mike Ehrmantraut

Since its invention in the late 19th century, the clipboard has become an unofficial symbol of sovereignty. Writers have exploited this phenomenon by giving characters the Clipboard of Authority if they want to make them look important and in control. Unsurprisingly, this awe-inspiring device is often used by characters when infiltrating the villain’s compound and during general impersonation stunts. Its effect is predictable, which adds to the strength of the storytelling trope.

Take season 4 episode 1, Smoke, of the TV drama Better Caul Saul, for example. Former cop Mike Ehrmantraut becomes a security consultant. He infiltrates the office and warehouse of a company so as to expose its weaknesses. A stolen ID and acting as if he belonged get him in. Yet, he still grabs a clipboard for good measure. The cheap trick serves as a subtle way to underline how laughable the company’s security standards are. Mike is not impressed.

2. Chekhov’s Gunman

In order to *cough* [Excuse me.] understand Chekhov’s Gunman, we have to understand the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s Gun. It was coined by Russian writer Anton Chekhov and says that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” It was wrong to make promises a writer didn’t mean to keep, Chekhov noted.

Of course, this unwritten rule of storytelling does not apply to firearms alone. Any prop or plot element should either be highly relevant to the narrative or left out. In the same way, Chekhov’s Gunman is the human version of Chekhov’s principle. Think of an unassuming or seemingly insignificant character who turns out to be pretty important later in the plot.

A classic example is the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings. Boromir, a member of the legendary fellowship of the ring, briefly mentions to his father. In the third volume, The Return of the King, we eventually get to meet the Steward of Gondor. And he ends up playing a pivotal role in the fate of Middle-earth.

3. Orange-Blue Contrast

Storytelling Tropes
The Bourne Identity

When it comes to movies, storytelling often begins before you buy your ticket. A subtle way to communicate the nature of the film is the Orange-Blue Contrast used in movie posters. The two colours are complementary, meaning they’re on opposite sites of the colour wheel. That makes them go together really well, making each of them seem brighter.

The high contrast between fiery orange and cool blue directly translates to a high emotional impact on the audience. It makes us anticipate a story that’s both thrilling and exhilarating yet cool and fresh. And isn’t that exactly what makes the Bourne franchise so appealing?

Nowadays, this trope is used far beyond film posters. Pay attention to lighting and colouring in the next show or movie you’re watching. Or check out the backgrounds of your favourite podcasters. Unfortunately, once you know about this effect, it loses much of its thrill and you may feel somewhat cheated.

4. MacGuffin

A MacGuffin is an object or element that drives that plot but is somewhat pointless and interchangeable. Its exact nature and purpose can remain unclear and you’re lucky if it’s even mentioned again. The term itself was supposedly coined by one of Alfred Hitchcock’s screenwriters.

Prominent examples include The Rabbit’s Foot Ethan Hunt is chasing in Mission Impossible III (2006) and The Philosopher’s Stone in the eponymous Harry Potter book. We might as well call them The Donkey’s Ear or the Stoic’s Marbles as they’re never actually used. Though done right, the aura of secrecy can add to the movie and tickle the imagination of the audience.

A third example is Negative 25 in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Walter, the bland and average protagonist, travels the world to retrieve his MacGuffin. The journey turns him into an adventurer whose life has become more exciting. Though, in the end, the MacGuffin is subverted when it’s revealed the negative was in his pocket the whole time. We even get to see the developed picture in the end. It wasn’t quite so pointless and interchangeable after all.

5. Comic Relief

With all the drama, action and tragedy, Comic Relief gives the audience a much-needed break. As with many storytelling tropes, Comic Relief can come in the guise of a plot element, conversation or a character. It brings some levity to an otherwise serious story. The Porter’s scene in William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth is a classic example.

The tragedy of murder and betrayal is about a Scottish general whose ambition is slowly corrupting him. After King Duncan is murdered and before his body is discovered, a drunken gatekeeper answers the knocks on the castle. He goes on to describe the effects of being drunk to Macduff, Macbeth’s rival. It’s in stark contrast to the bloodshed of the previous scene. And to what comes after.

MACDUFF: What three things does drink especially provoke?

PORTER: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.

If overdone, Comic Relief can backfire. It’s a sin to even mention this character in the same passage as Shakespeare. But Jar-Jar Bings in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) is a great example of an overly goofy comic relief character that undermined the credibility of the rest of the story.

6. A-Team Montage

You’re probably familiar with montages. In my post about the language of film I described them as “a series of brief shots edited together to give the audience the illusion of time passing”. It can be used to illustrate a character’s progression without taking up too much storytelling time. The A-Team Montage makes a special case of this cinematic device. It shows a group of characters building something while each and every one of them are showcasing their special skill set.

People who grew up in the 1980s and 90s will remember the TV show The A-Team. Convicted for a crime they didn’t commit, four disgraced army veterans escape military prison to become your friendly neighbourhood mercenaries. Each of them has a distinct personality and skill set. And each new villain of the week makes the mistake of trapping our heroes in a barn full of tools and other material the team can easily weaponise to save the day.

7. Plot Armour

Storytelling Tropes

When a character must not die so the rest of the plot can happen, he or she is given Plot Armour. No matter what the script throws at them, our heroes or villains simply refuse to perish. Writers must walk a fine line. Their characters need to overcome dangerous struggles to earn that sweet payoff in the end. But those struggles mustn’t be so implausible that nobody could reasonably survive them.

If done wrong it can be rather annoying. As an example, we could take pretty much any thriller, action or superhero movie such as Avengers: Endgame (2019). In the final act, Thanos completely destroys the Avengers headquarters with many heroes still inside. Even Hawkeye, the mortal archer with a mohawk, miraculously survives this. If we’re being totally honest, though, we do have an expectation of certain characters wearing their Plot Armour.

We even expect this storytelling trope based on which actor or actress plays a character. This is why subversion of the trope can be a welcome element. A good example is the 1996 action thriller Executive Decision from the time when Steven Seagal had his heyday. Featured prominently in the film promo, Seagal functions as a decoy protagonist. He gets sucked out of a jet early in the movie. Without his plot armour, Seagal’s character dies before the real action begins.

8. The Worf Effect

The Worf Effect is named after the iconic Star Trek character played by Michael Dorn. Being a Klingon, Worf was known by the audience to be one of the toughest and bravest characters in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now imagine a new antagonist comes along and picks a fight with Worf. If the antagonist wins or at least does well against the son of Mogh, viewers immediately know the villain is a power to be reckoned with.

A more recent example is the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). The first scene sees villain Thanos beat The Hulk in hand-to-hand combat. If there was any doubt about Thanos’ capabilities, the Titan beating the expert smasher sets the stakes from the beginning. If that weren’t enough, Thanos also kills the villain from the first Avengers movie, doubling the effect.

So in general, the Worf Effect is a great way to establish the power level of new characters and put it in perspective to known ones. As with all storytelling tropes, it shouldn’t be overused, though. If done too often, writers must face the unintended consequences of their tough character’s reputation being damaged. If he gets beaten up all the time, how strong can Worf really be?

9. Seinfeldian Conversation

Seinfeldian Conversations are long-winded and pointless dialogues about trivial matters that don’t propel the narrative forward, much like Shaggy Dog Stories. Seinfeldian Conversations are named after the 90s sitcom Seinfeld, often called “the show about nothing”. Speaking of nothing, what’s the opposite of eating tuna?

In a sense, Seinfeldian Conversations are blatantly ignoring Chekhov’s golden rule. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the viewer can be excused for having their expectations raised in the opening dialogue. Unfortunately, the debate about swallows and whether they might be able to carry a coconut to England has no bearing on the plot.

Even if not directly relevant to the plot, Seinfeldian conversations can be a breath of fresh air in storytelling that’s too efficient and predictable.

10. Incurable Cough of Death

Due to said efficiency and the audience’s expectations, literature and film scripts often skip over random daily activities and behaviours. For instance, in real life, people cough and it means nothing (perhaps with the exception of the more recent couple of years). As regular movie-goers, however, we understand we’ve just witnessed the Incurable Cough of Death. There’s a fair chance the character will soon be diagnosed with a terminal disease and won’t survive the credits.

The TV drama Breaking Bad is one of the more credible examples. From the moment of his introduction, Walter White coughs a lot. He’s soon diagnosed with lung cancer, which plays a critical role in his character development. If you prefer even more realism, imagine random inconsequential coughs in your favourite writing. Would I be wrong to assume you’d be equally disappointed?

BONUS: That’s All, Folks!

So, how would you end that film script of yours? Perhaps you thought of an ambiguous ending that leaves the audience questioning whether the conflict is resolved. Maybe you’d prefer the cheesy way and have your protagonists ride into the sunset. Or…you could just tell them.

That’s All, Folks! is the collective term for a less subtle way to end the story. The storytelling trope tends to be used in comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In the post-credit scene, Ferris steps out of the bathroom and asks incredulously: “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home! Go!”

Closing Thoughts

Given its thousand-year history, it’s impossible to come up with a story that’s original in its entirety. And why would we want to? We’d surely want to avoid any cliches, that is storytelling tropes that have become so overused that they’ve become boring and unoriginal. But the real art lies in giving your audience something they can recognise. Yet to surprise them with a novel perspective on a trope they thought they knew.