USING TROPES AS SHORTHAND IN STORYTELLING
Tropes are a key component in cinematic storytelling because they function much like the moving image in the sense that they relay a lot of idea in a relatively small package. Tropes become tropes for a reason: because they work.
Let’s take for instance the trope of characters doing a lot of drugs. This choice is very often used to relay two ideas. The first is to establish “these are the wild party days.” The second is to shorthand the idea of a “beginning of the end.”
For example, look at BOOGIE NIGHTS. We have scenes in which the characters blow a lot of coke. Early in the story, these are treated as fun beats; the characters are engaging in bacchanalia. They are on a rise, they are partying, it’s “good” for the characters.
But then later we have beats in which Dirk is snorting lines, but now the tone is much darker; he’s pale, the scene isn’t fun, Dirk can no longer perform as well due to his overindulgence, he gets into an argument that leads to a split with Jack. This is a “beginning of the end” beat. Still later, Dirk almost gets killed while pulling an ill-advised cocaine heist. It’s our “rock bottom” beat. Same action (doing drugs), but the trope serves multiple uses.
More recently, in the Hulu mini-series WELCOME TO CHIPPENDALES, we see these tropes play out in a very similar way. We get beats in which Banerjee and his wife decide to embrace the ‘80s LA lifestyle; their doing drugs is shorthand for “fun,” “party,” “going wild,” etc. But later, Banerjee is doing drugs by himself. The tone is darker. It’s a “beginning of the end” trope.
A trope becomes a trope when it enters the lexicon of common shorthand. Looking further afield, we find similar beats in GOODFELLAS. As with Dirk Diggler, Henry Hill falls out with the family due to his involvement with drugs, and during his rock bottom sequence he’s similarly, pale, unhealthy, he’s shoving as much coke into his face as he can.
Consider the famous climax of SCARFACE. Drugs don’t lead to his falling out with the other criminals, but we end with Tony Montana indulging in that gigantic mountain of cocaine. On a smaller dramatic scale, look at FOXCATCHER; we get a key scene in which John du Pont catches Mark Schultz pulling bongs instead of working out. Not only does this cause a rift (as with GOODFELLAS and BOOGIE NIGHTS), but the drug use also serves as a shorthand to tell us the formerly dedicated athlete has become lazy and indulgent.
To be clear, this article isn’t about drugs; it’s about the idea of taking a trope and applying its core narrative payload to various narratives. Tropes are certainly useful. But let’s also be careful to not solely rely on them, or else they can come across as an off-the-shelf choice from the Script Store. We want every trope to be organically applied to the story.