From the Vertigo effect to the Jerk With A Heart of Gold, movie tropes are often noticeable

Affable baddies: John Travolta, left, and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Picture: Supplied
Affable baddies: John Travolta, left, and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Picture: Supplied

The black dude dies first. The final girl is the sole survivor in a slasher movie. People don't go to the toilet unless it's necessary for the plot. It was all a dream. The hero is dead and doesn't know it. A sympathetic character ends up alone with a psycho. Someone screams, loud and long, "NOOOOOOOOOOO!"

These are just some of the tropes - which can be, but aren't necessarily, cliches - used in film, television, fiction and other storytelling media.

Haley Joel Osment, left, and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied

Haley Joel Osment, left, and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. Picture: Supplied

You'll probably recognise these and be able to come up with many more. The creators of and contributors to the website TV Tropes (tvtropes.com.au) have spent a lot of time and effort (possibly too much) into thinking about and collating these tropes. And despite the website's name, it's not just about television: tropes are found in comic books, literature, board games, video games, theatre ... and, of course, movies.

It's fun having the memory jogged and the eyes opened and to realise just how many devices, cliches and repeated elements there are in storytelling of various kinds.

The site can be tricky to search because of its idiosyncratic keywords and key phrases. For example, the trope "A character is surrounded by people who constantly put them down, usually because of some trait that is integral to them being a hero or villain" (like Stephen King's Carrie) is called All of the Other Reindeer. While the Rudolph allusion is obvious then, the phrase is probably not one that springs immediately to mind when searching.

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Picture: Supplied

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Picture: Supplied

The "Berserk Button" is pressed when something is said to a character, or the character sees something, that makes them very angry. When Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest lneaks into the kids' bedroom one night and looks at her daughter Christina's clothes hanging up, it triggers the notorious "NO...WIRE...HANGERS... EVER!" outburst. But then, in this film, it didn't take much to set Joan off.

An "Aborted Arc" is when a major storyline is dropped and never referred to again (as in The Room when Lisa's mother says she has breast cancer, they discuss it very briefly, and then it is never referred to again. But that's far from the worst of that film's insanities).

And "As you know" refers to characters discussing something of which they are both aware but the audience isn't or might have forgotten. Again, this might not be the most obvious term for a reconisable phenomenon.

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Picture: Supplied

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Picture: Supplied

Much easier is to look up a particular work title and read the tropes it contains. Pulp Fiction, for example, has characters who are "Affably Evil" (Vincent, Jules, Winston), "an Aesop" lesson or two (Jules and Butch redeem themselves and survive: Vincent doesn't, and doesn't). It has an example (the suitcase) of Hitchcock's "MacGuffin" (something that drives the plot but isn't important in itself). And a character watches "The Public Domain Channel" (with a show or movie on TV that is out of copyright and hence free to use).

In Good Will Hunting, the film's title character is Brilliant But Lazy, an Almighty Janitor - low in status but high in what he can accomplish (see also Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid). Will is a Jerk With a Heart of Gold who gets asked an Armour-Piercing Question ("Look at me, Will. What do you want to do?").

If you're looking for Oh, Crap! moments in movies, there's a particularly good one in Jaws, when the disorienting Vertigo Effect (camera dollies backwards and zooms in simultaneously) accentuates the moment when Chief Brody sees a shark attack. The trope is, obviously, named after its appearance in Vertigo.

Sometimes there's a Trope Namer trope that comes from a particularly apt example, like the Obi-Wan Moment where a character faces death calmly and peacefully (derived from Star Wars: A New Hope).

If you want to read about classic sound effects like the Wilhelm Scream and Castle Thunder, you can, with links to the sounds themselves. If you don't recognise the names, you'll know the sounds when you hear them.

TV Tropes is the kind of website you can investigate for hours, if you're so inclined. The content is uneven but despite the navigational challenges, as noted, it's a clearly designed site that's a lot of fun.

This story Tracking the tropes we know and love first appeared on The Canberra Times.