Recently, I have been excessively active on the TV Tropes wiki, and I have noticed that a lot of new “trope” suggestions are not tropes at all. I believe the reason for this is the lack of understanding of the term “trope” in the TV Tropes’ sense of this word. In the following discourse, I will attempt to answer the question “What is a trope?” to the best of my understanding.
To begin with the basic definitions, the most universal formula of a story I know reads “A character wants something badly and is having trouble getting it.” This is effectively what 99% of stories boil down to: the same thing repeated over and over again throughout thousands of books, plays, movies, TV series, etc.. And it’s not even a very complex or exciting one. From an alien point of view, we humans must be so weird, getting a kick out of such dumb and repetitive entertainment.
But the devil is in the details. Who is this character? What is it that they want? What trouble are they having? More importantly, why is the character sympathetic? Why do they want that which they do so badly? Why are they having so much trouble? The questions “who/what/when/where” relate to the outer side of a story; the question “why” prods its inner workings. The inner story is a swarm of emotions and ideas your readers want you to transmit to them. The outer story is the medium you use for this transmission. The readers want to see the inner story through the prism of immediate experiences of the outer one.
The writer’s ability to tell both outer and inner stories in the same work by answering only the four “outer” questions is the measure of their skill. It sounds easy but our language makes it tricky by offering constructs to tell inner stories directly, rather than through their outer manifestations. Thank gods for that, too: our science and other analytical disciplines wouldn’t get anywhere, had we not invented these abstract terms and concepts. But when it comes to creative storytelling, telling an inner story instead of letting it show through the outer one is deadly. This is the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle.
Tropes are the bridge between outer and inner stories. They are always twofold: a trope always shows something and it always implies something. What it shows is a small bit of the outer story; what it implies is a piece of the inner story: an emotion or an idea, packaged as a hint or a promise. A great story plays its tropes in such way that they build up to a consistent, logical outer plot but simultaneously offer a myriad of clues, which the readers “get”, “don’t get”, or “get” differently.
If a “trope” only shows something without implying more, it’s not a trope. For instance, “Red Hair” is not a trope but a description of personal appearance. On the other hand, “Fiery Redhead” is, because it shows a character with red hair and implies that this character has a passionate personality. It doesn’t have to be true but the readers are invited to read between the actual lines. And the writer is invited to play with their expectations.