Tropes In Literature #1: Mr. Exposition and Captain Obvious

Tropes are common themes, plot elements, or literary devices so popular they've often become cliché.  Some people hate them.  Some editors will throw your manuscript in the trash the moment they see a trope they're tired of.  Others will reject it because it doesn't follow a popular pattern.   People like Terry Pratchett make an art of purposely employing too many tropes, to hilarious effect.  The thing is, clichés become clichés for a reason:  we LOVE certain story elements, and don't mind if we see them over and over again.  Entire genres are built on well established tropes that readers not only tolerate, but expect.

Tropes:  Use Them or Not?

My opinion:  be aware of the tropes of your genre, then go ahead and use the ones you like, the ones that serve your story, but play around with them.  Make them your own.  It's true that, when you boil everything down, there aren't a whole lot of truly unique stories.  It's the way you tell it that makes it unique.   

I'll be featuring individual devices and plot elements here in my Literature Tropes series, but if you want to get lost for an hour or two, visit, where you'll discover all sorts of familiar tropes with clever names like "Dark Lord on Life Support" or "Conveniently an Orphan."

Mr. Exposition  

This trope involves a character who exists only to explain a plot element, an important scientific or magical law, an aspect of a foreign culture, etc. to the protagonist.  Often it's actually for the benefit of the reader, not the protagonist, who should know it already.  Think of all those TV detectives explaining forensic procedures to each other.  I call this "exposition in dialogue," and it's awkward if all characters in the conversation already know everything they're saying, yet they say it anyway.  As a writer, you should think of a more natural way to get the information across to your reader.  If you want some specific alternatives, read my post on Exposition in Dialogue.  Employing Mr. Exposition occasionally—for information the characters really don't know—can be useful and efficient.  And if it's ingrained enough in the character's personality, it can really work.  Think of Star Trek's Data or the immortal Sherlock Holmes.

Captain Obvious

We've all had visits from Captain Obvious in our real lives.  In writing, he's that character who says something that not just the characters but the reader should also clearly know.


You can sometimes make brilliant use this for emphasis, or with a sarcastic character, but be careful otherwise. 

Captain Obvious also likes to repeat in dialogue what has already been narrated.  Picture a vividly written scene where two people are tied to the tracks and blinded by the light of the oncoming train.  Then one character says, "Hey, there's an oncoming train!"  This may be perfect for comic effect, but avoid it if it's not meant to be funny.

Be Aware

Remember, tropes aren't necessarily good or bad.  It's how you use them.  Being aware of some of the most common ones will help you make conscious decisions about using them, twisting them…or cutting them.

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at

NANOWRIMO 2015 word count as of today, November 3:  6307 words


Karen Cioffi said...

Melinda, I love this post! And, the images. I see exposition all the time in TV detective stories. It's hysterical. Writers have to put on their thinking caps to interweave needed to know info into the story without hitting the reader over the head. I'll be checking out your post, Exposition in Dialogue.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

What an original way to make these no-nos come alive!

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Fun post and you have time to do NanoWriMo too! Thanks for the post and weblinks, Melinda. :-)

Linda Wilson said...

Melinda, very clever post. I enjoyed it and look forward to your series.

Shirley Corder said...

Interesting post, Melinda. Cliches I know, tropes I didn't! Enjoy NaNo. I am sad not doing it this year but it was a no no!

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