Top 10 TV Writing Tropes

Nothing new to see... Move along, now.



We hate to be the ones to break it to you (actually, we kind of love it), but all those new shows you get excited about… they’re all the same. Each of them is chock-full of writing tropes, conventions and devices, recycled script after script until we can start figuring out what’s going to happen before it does.

10. The Trigger

Tropes 1

In every pilot episode, there’s an action or event that sets off a chain reaction, making the show we’re watching possible. Think of Tony’s panic attack in ‘The Sopranos,’ Raylan’s transfer-worthy shooting in ‘Justified,’ or Peter cheating on Alicia in ‘The Good Wife.’ Otherwise, we’d just be watching life.

9. The Maverick


Be it cop, lawyer, doctor (or any other profession where being a maverick is a disadvantage in real life), there’s invariably a rogue hero at the heart of many of our favorite shows. But shows like ‘The Shield’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ have demonstrated that there’s a fine line between maverick and criminal.

8. The Catchphrase


It doesn’t matter how realistic a TV show is supposed to be, it’s never above rolling out a quotable line for quick gratification. ‘Seinfeld’ had “Hello, Newman.” ‘The Simpsons’ had ”Eat My Shorts!” Even ‘The Wire’ had “Sheeeeeeeet.” However, ‘Different Strokes’ showed us you cant build a show on catchphrases alone.

7. The Unlikely Couple


It doesn’t matter whether they’re straight or gay, young or old, interracial or not — the two least compatible characters in a show will eventually end up together. ‘Modern Family’’s Jay and Gloria, ‘King of Queens” Doug and Carrie, ‘Frasier”s Niles and Daphne. It’s like they’re trying to preempt slash fiction.

6. The Secret That Comes Out


It was decreed by Moses on Mount Sinai that no secret in a TV show shall ever remain a secret for long. Everyone had to find out that ‘Breaking Bad”s Walt was a drug dealer, that Olivia slept with the President and that The Island on ‘Lost’ is purgatory… or, something.

5. The Corpse With Information

Tropes 2

In order to tease out a TV series over years and years, writers have to make sure that anyone who can blow the whistle on what’s going on doesn’t live to tell anyone who could put an end to it. Without it, ’24’ and ‘The Americans’ would have lasted only one episode.

4. The Midseason Game Changer


Speaking to the unwritten rule that TV seasons are split into two parts thanks to network scheduling, the last episode before midseason typically has more twists and turns than an episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ set in a whirlpool. The midseason break becomes much-needed recovery time for our poor hearts.

3. The Crusty But Benign Boss

Tropes 3

This description from the Oscar-winning TV satire ‘Network’ sums it up perfectly. All TV bosses start off as Scrooge and end up as… well, Scrooge at the end of Scrooge. From Jack Donaghy in ’30 Rock’ to Ron Swanson in ‘Parks and Recreation,’ it’s tough (yet surprisingly lovable, eventually) at the top.

2. The Death/Life Parallel


In TV, characters seem to time their deaths so that they leave the world at the exact moment a baby connected to them in some way arrives in it. In ‘ER,’ a patient couldn’t faint without the sound of a newborn crowning somewhere near. We get it – life and death are connected.

1. Saying Stuff You Dont Have To


To date, only Bart Simpson has questioned why TV characters relay information without cause or prompt. But perhaps everyone who’s ever had a TV conversation should be wondering the same. The sign of a good script is how well exposition is hidden. But, listen closely and you’ll hear characters forever uttering irrelevancies.