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A literary trope is the use of figurative language – via word, phrase, or even an image – for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

What is a "trope"?

A trope is essentially a main idea or motif that is important to the meaning of a literary work. Moreover, another, somewhat related meaning of trope is: the use of figurative or metaphorical language in order to achieve a specific aesthetic effect.  

Examples of use

So that you can gain a better understanding of the term trope, here are some examples of the term being using correctly within sentences. 

"In the second film of the original Star Wars film, the director exploits the old mythological trope of the lost father to great dramatic effect."

"The author's new novel was hailed as a major innovation in art at least partly because it avoided one or another traditional trope of character development and thus surprised the reader."

"The systematic use of the trope of allegory made the author seem as though he was consciously trying to make the reader think about Socrates and Jesus."

Usage rules of tropes

In case you are still a little confused about the meaning of the term trope, here are some guidelines you can follow when using the word, or you can check out our glossary for more help. 

  1. In common usage, a trope refers to a kind of archetypical (or even stereotypical) structure or motif within a literary work. It can have a slight negative connotation: this is because if a person is using a trope, he may be relying on already-existing narrative structures or themes, as opposed to developing something truly original of his own. 
  2. In a more specifically literary context, a trope can refer to any of several forms of figurative language, including allegory and synecdoche. However, this is not the common meaning of the term trope in these times, and most people will probably not understand trope as signifying such figurative language.  

A rhetorical tool

Historically, the term trope came into being in order to help people better understand the types of figurative language that are commonly used by people. It was primarily a concept of rhetoric. This is the sense in metaphor can be identified as one trope, and irony can be identified as another example of a trope. In this context, a trope refers to a general pattern, or archetype, of figurative language use; a given trope encompasses all possible uses of language in that particular way. 

From this original meaning, it would seem that the meaning of the term trope at some point evolved to primarily refer to key themes or motifs that are used by writers when constructing narrative works and/or arguments. For example, one could use a conventional image, or trope, of two brothers in order to explain certain events in international politics. 

What the two uses of the term trope have in common is that they both refer to archetypical patterns that are utilized in order to make a point or convey an idea within a specific situation. However, whereas the first meaning of trope tends to focus on types of figurative language, the second meaning of trope tends to focus on the actual content of themes or images evoked. This second usage could potentially have a negative connotation insofar as it can imply unoriginality.  

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