As bookish people, we tend to seek out stories that possess something completely new and different from anything else we have read or seen before. It is the natural craving, which has been the source of power behind today’s golden age of entertainment content. Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services are engaged in a heated race to produce the new best stories for our enjoyment, testing new elements, combos, and throwing out old rules; however, there are some things that have lingered. Tropes so good that they have yet to be worn out (if ever).
Tropes—those reusable aspects of story that cross the boundaries of fictional universes and timelines. They are the vanilla ice cream of fiction, providing a sense of interlinking structure in entertainment and continue to appear in today’s most popular stories. It should be addressed that the word trope does not always have positive connotations. In this age of “finding the new best thing,” tropes are seen as something to avoid because they have been used so often before. But that is not an inherently bad thing. Many tropes are tropes because they work so well in the first place. Let me ask you this: did you stop eating vanilla ice cream when you first tried cookie dough? I didn’t think so…
In honor of this National Vanilla Ice Cream Day, here are 10 tropes that will never lose their power to capture our attention as readers and viewers of entertainment.
You’ve probably heard the saying: people want what they can’t have. Time and time again, this simple fact of human nature has lifted what would be typical romances to a whole new level. This trope has been applied in works throughout the centuries, from Jane Eyre and Gone With The Wind to The Twilight Saga. The combination of romance and conflict—two factors that draw readers and viewers like magnets—has made the Forbidden Lovers trope one of the strongest and longest lasting in history.
2. Hero’s Journey
Let me name a few titles to give you the idea: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings… One of the oldest story structures of all time, the Hero’s Journey trope has kept its ability to move audiences since the days of The Iliad and The Odyssey, proving that it is here to stay. Though some authors have started to question the continued use of the trope, viewing it as a declining and overused story mechanism, they fail to consider how new innovations in character, plot, and setting—as well as adaptations to the structure—are keeping this literary vanilla ice cream cool.
3. Medieval Settings
It should be noted that the Medieval Era lasted for about 1000 years (roughly 1/6th of civilized human history. And, gee…weren’t those some colorful years. Swords, shields, castles, myths, religious fervor, wars, conquests, greed, feudalism, and everyone’s favorite: blood and guts. For some reason, seeing a head roll off someone’s shoulders hits the spot for many readers and viewers. What makes this era so fascinating may boil down to the fact that it directly precedes our current time. The Medieval Era only ended 500 years ago; taking into account the relative nearness of time and the stark differences between it and our world today, it is far easier to suspend disbelief and enjoy books, movies, and tv shows that capitalize on this trope vs other time periods; for instance, the Bronze Age.
4. Faster-Than-Light Space Travel
Though this trope seems to exist primarily for its plot practicality, no one is going to get tired of seeing the stars warp as a spaceship literally breaks the speed-limit of the universe. With the most popular examples being Star Wars’s hyperspace and Star Trek’s warp drive, you’ll find that there are a number of creative ways authors have imagined (with the help of some scientific principles and discoveries) to build narrative stages spanning literal galaxies. Considering that we have yet to hack the distances between just our own solar system’s planets, you can bet on this trope remaining in fiction for the next hundred years…thousand years…or maybe even longer depending on how much we, as a species, procrastinate on this ultimate goal.
5. Apprenticeship Arcs
When you jump into a new fictional world for the first time, you have no idea what is going on or what the context of the setting, characters, and magic are. The Apprenticeship trope bridges the gap between the protagonist and the reader/viewer in the story. Instead of following blindly as they go about their heroic business, this trope allows you to learn with them. Arguably the best example of this vanilla scoop of storytelling is the Harry Potter Series; The Wizarding World is shown to you, the reader, through the equally fresh eyes of the main character Harry Potter and, as he becomes more practiced in magic, so do you.
It may be true that some books and movies have used McGuffins to poor effect, but that doesn’t mean that the entire trope is going away soon. Many of the greatest stories of our time were jumpstarted by McGuffins: for instance, The Lord of the Rings—that literary behemoth—was the result of a single ring that just so happened to belong to Middle Earth’s Dark Lord. Who knew? Perhaps what makes this trope so successful when done properly is our recognition that it could happen to us in real life. New opportunities spring up from nowhere and you can never be clear on how far they will take you if indulged. In fiction, the possibilities are ripe to be even weirder than life.
7. Remote Settings
Maybe it’s the vistas. Maybe it’s the chance to discover a new culture or lifestyle. Or maybe, we’re just tired of other people. Whatever the reason, we, as consumers of content, can’t get enough of far away settings—places cut off from the normal flow of the world. Whether they are islands, deserts, or complete worlds onto themselves, there is sensation in being transported to the literal edge of the world in a story. The opposite also holds true. Remember Luke Skywalker on Tatooine? It doesn’t matter what direction this trope is employed in; we still can’t get enough of it.
Revenge is a meal best served cold…like vanilla ice cream. Though not as popular as some of the other items on this list, revenge stories have a way of stoking that fiery and unwieldy part of our soul. Such stories satisfy our human nature, first by demonstrating a moral injustice, followed by retribution. We all wish for the scales of life to be balanced, and this trope provides that in a temporary sense. Whether they are legal thrillers or unusual and calculated revenge plots like The Count of Monte Cristo and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, we will always be enticed by the prospect of serving up cold scoops of justice.
What’s the quickest way to get people off the couch? Tell them someone/something is missing. People like to find things. It’s what led us—creatures slightly more adept than apes—to set up shop around the world thousands of years before inventing GPS and Google Maps. And that instinctive human drive to “see what’s over there” had propelled the popularity of the “Missing” trope since its origins. Whether it’s a crime novel or an adventure journey, for as long as we stay true to our humanity, authors and audiences will keep seeking this trope out.
There is something inherently satisfying about watching someone (or some people) enduring extreme bad luck and circumstances push past it all with cunning and/or brute force. Think Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Hunger Games Trilogy, and the lesser known masterpiece Mistborn: The Final Empire—all stories that employ this trope. Perhaps it boils down to the human free spirit or wish fulfillment to create dramatic change in one’s own life and the world; whatever the reason, no one’s getting tired of this vanilla trope any time soon.