There are some things in storytelling that we repeat, rehash, and make anew. That’s part of the human condition; we love telling stories and boy howdy, do we love hearing, reading, and seeing them on the screens. Chalk it up to the hero’s journey, but humans are just super into that rising-action/climax/conclusion cycle. And within that cycle we come up with literary tropes as well; the wise old mentor, the sidekick, the monster. These have been around since humans first sat around a fire together telling stories.
As storytelling evolved, so to have these tropes. In fact, with regards to film and TV, there’s a whole website dedicated to cataloging them. Sure we have wise old mentors, but we also have The Hacker, who can smash a keyboard and get into any computer system. We have The Jock and The Cheerleader and myriad other roles we slot our characters into. There are themes that get repeated, lines of dialogue that pop up again and again — i.e. techno-jargon followed by a, “Speak English!” — and even plot holes that writers fall into again and again.
Writing and storytelling are hard; it’s easy to walk on the well-trod path that others have set before. In fact, in many ways it’s a good thing; the hero’s journey speaks to us on a nearly primal level. Humans like it, and your story probably already follows obliquely; let it. Have fun with it.
But there are some tropes, particularly in film and screenwriting, that we do not need anymore.
The following list is a collection of some of my least favorite writing tropes. They’re just malarkey. Frankly, they are dated and offensive. You can do better.
#1: Black Best Friend/Gay Best Friend
This is one of those tropes that seem okay at the outset — we love diversity! Look at how diverse this is! But therein lies the problem. This is a dangerous mindset to adopt. Diversity for the sake of tokenism is insulting, full stop.
Writing a character to fill a quota reduces that character. If they’re in the ‘best friend’ role, usually their entire existence revolves around the main character who is more often than not straight and white. That’s not to say that all supporting characters who are gay/LGBTQ or POC fall into this trope. You just have to make sure these characters have their own wants, needs, and motives outside of the protagonist. Do you exist solely to be a sounding board to your best friend’s thoughts? Hopefully not, and neither should your supporting characters.
And also ask your self why can’t your main character be a lesbian? Or Black? Maybe a Black lesbian? A South-Asian pansexual? Or a Guatemalan trans man? Or even just a straight guy who isn’t white. There’s a whole world out there that lends itself to amazing storytelling. Explore it. Embrace it. Someone from a different race, socioeconomic class, or gender presentation is going to have a different time living the story in your head, and that’s fantastic! Study up to do it properly and make it happen.
(If you’re interested in diverse voice, be sure to check out my article on writing accents!)
#2: Women in their Twenties
Most women have a decade where they are in their twenties. That’s how life works. However, turn on any movie and you’ll probably see that most of the women are only in their twenties, maybe their early thirties if the film is particularly brave. Furthermore, teenage girls are expected to be in their twenties on screen too. Yikes.
This is a holdover from the older generation of filmmakers. More often than not, women were glorified props. They’re pretty, opinion-less, and in their early twenties. It’s incredibly dehumanizing and lends itself to some dangerous cultural norms. The world doesn’t end when you turn 30, but a lot of media would have us believe otherwise. Women have a harder time getting roles after 30, even if they’re accomplished actors, and more importantly, are almost always paired alongside much older men as a love interest.
In real life if we saw a twenty-year-old dating a forty-year-old, we’d (hopefully) be very concerned. Why is so common in films?
Ultimately, men are allowed to age, but women aren’t.
If you google “movie, older man, younger woman” the worst part is you get multiple lists and articles listing the best ones. As if there isn’t something weird about it. I’m grossed out.
Make your protagonist a woman in her 40’s. Greying hair and stretch marks and tits that aren’t at her chin level. They exist. And more importantly, they have stories to tell, and points of view that are important and neglected. Furthermore, their stories can revolve around something other than men and childbearing. Have you ever met a woman doctor or a checkout clerk or a zookeeper who is in their forties, fifties, or sixties? I hope you have. Why aren’t they on the screen?
#3: Joss Whedon-esque Impact Kills
(This is literally called “being jossed” in some circles, oh yikes!)
Sometimes there is a very good reason to kill your characters. Sometimes that’s the way the plot is going, and sometimes it’s inevitable.
However, sometimes a writer will kill off a character for shock value. How else are we supposed to know the stakes are high? I don’t have an answer for that but killing off a character, especially one that you have the audience rooting for, just because, is bullshit.
Of all the things on this list, I can’t be extremely mad about this one, because this is a tool that works. Impact kills do make an impact. Sometimes characters have to die, and sometimes it has to be unexpected. But you have to make it worth it for the audience. You have to respect the audience, and if you’re just trying to jar them into a reaction, you’ve lost the plot.
#4: “What was that? A plot solution in your random sentence?”
You’ve probably seen this scene. The situation is bad, the heroes are disheartened, and a side character says some innocuous sentence.
“Gosh, sure would be nice if we had some cheese puffs. Eating those makes everything better.”
The protagonist perks up, “Say that again?”
“What? Cheese puffs?”
“No, the other thing! After that!”
“Eating those makes everything–“
“That’s it! The aliens can’t taste things! That’s why they’re rampaging! If we get [inane chemical compound] into their system they’ll turn back to normal!”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that. But it’s happened over and over again. Something completely unrelated trips a wire in someone’s mind and the solution is there. The truth is that that sort of thing can happen on a much smaller scale in real life. Someone mentions salad and you remember you have to get more spinach next time you go to the grocery store.
What doesn’t happen is that something completely innocuous changes the entire storyline and saves the day. It’s fun, but it’s extremely lazy writing. I can see it working in playful kids-action movies but there are much better ways to present your plot to the audience. Furthermore, if you aren’t planting the seeds of the plot ahead of time, having it jump out like this can be jarring.
#5: Gay villain/POC villain
The opposite of the Black/Gay best friend trope is the villain of your story being LGBTQ or a POC (or both). It’s dangerously more detrimental than the aforementioned best friend problem.
The way this happens more often than not is just ‘othering’ gone to an extreme. A movie needs the antagonist to seem as different from the protagonist as possible. That means changing their color and mannerisms, plain and simple.
I could parse through how this is done in so many movies. You can probably come up with a few on the fly if you think about it. Modern action movies post-9/11 in particular have leaned towards Middle Eastern antagonists (a shift from the cold war era movies where the Russians were the bad guys. Funny how art imitates life or something equally clichéd)
But let’s talk about a popular, non-action movie that you’ve probably seen. Hell, if you’re my age you probably watched it multiple times on VHS as a child.
The Lion King. (The cartoon, not the new CGI remake)
The bad guy is a lion named Scar, and antagonist/foil to first Mufasa and then Simba.
Scar and Mufasa are brothers – they look nothing alike. And more importantly, they’re lions! Why does one of them look like a white dude (round eyes, square jaw) and the other look ambiguously ethnic (narrow eyes, longer/more slender face)? Furthermore, Scar acts in a way that is queer-coded (sophisticated drawl, more feminine mannerisms), and leads a troupe of hyenas that include depictions mirroring Black woman, a Latino man, and a mentally disabled character; talk about othering! It’s maddening to think that even on the African savannah this sort of thing is happening.
What does that tell children about who is good and who is bad? That sort of imagery can seem innocuous but it makes an impact. It means something. Even if a four-year-old can’t articulate what it is, the message gets across just fine. Villains act like this and look like this, if I act like this I may be a bad person.
If nothing else, any children seeing a movie that you’re writing deserve better, don’t they?
What does this all mean?
Ultimately the goal of this piece is to have you take a good hard look at your characters. What kind of tropes are you falling back on, and are they necessary for your story? I’m not demanding that you scrap everything you work on and start again. Some tropes are good and normal and aid in the story-telling process (I personally love the concept of a meet-cute). But some can be omitted, or even better, flipped on their heads.
No one has to be the gay best friend if the whole group is some shade of LGBTQ. Older women can save the day at the last second in an action movie. At the end of the day, your writing is yours to do with what you will. But writing should be fun. Writing should open up new worlds and expose you and your audience to new points of view. Life is too short to say the same things people before us have already said over and over again.
Have fun. Find something new. Tell us a story we haven’t heard before. Avoid the bad tropes!
–Betsy the Gremlin
Some Bonus tropes!
Classical music villains.
For some reason, a lot of villains listen to and conduct evil business to classical music overtures. This is mildly related to the Gay/Queer-coded villain trope above. Boring boring boring. If your villain/antagonist listens to classical for no other reason than you want it, that’s not good enough. Give me a villain wrecking things to Mumford and Sons and I’ll be impressed.
Glasses-wearers are ugly.
I just think people with glasses are kinda hot. All the makeover scenes where they get contacts always break my heart a little.
Threesomes/thruples/polyamory situations are way more interesting. Sorry not sorry.