Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 20, 2012

Tropes, Foils, and Other Writing Definitions

Below are a few definitions of important words used to define areas of writing.  It should give you food for thought when revising or writing the first draft of your novel.


Common pattern in a story.  The story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience.  If over used , it can become a cliché and sadly, some of these troupes often perpetuates offensive stereotypes.


Chekhov’s Gun is a literary technique whereby an unimportant element introduced early in the story becomes significant later on. For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to evil, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important.

Many people consider the phrase “Chekhov’s gun” synonymous with foreshadowing (and they are related), but statements the author made about the Gun can be more properly interpreted as “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”  Like Foreshadowing, the object’s importance often goes unnoticed by the audience, and becomes clear only in retrospect, or during a second viewing.

Used properly, this rule gives the item in question some degree of presence before being used, enough to prevent appearing like the writer is pulling something out of thin air that might jar and/or grate on the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It can, however, turn out to be a red herring later on.


Dénouement (pronounced day-noo-mahn) is French for “unknotting”, and means the point in the story when mysteries are unraveled, fates are determined and explanations are made. It is not, as is commonly believed, synonymous with climax: This is the aftermath of the action, not the peak. It is usually the scene after the climax — although, it can happen in such close proximity to the events of the climax that it may appear to be part of its final moments.  Not all stories have dénouements.

How final and extensive it is depends on the scale of the plot — and whether there may be a sequel. This is where you would put in a “Sequel Hook”, if you envision a series.

For a happy ending or even a bittersweet ending, this is generally where the happiness is shown. This is the place where many of the usual rules, directed at keeping the conflict going, are suspended.  If “The Hero” and “The Love Interest” marry at the climax, the dénouement may show them happily waiting for the birth of a child, or cooing over the child.

In the unhappy ending or even the bittersweet ending, the tragedy is often allowed to ease off. “The Hero” dies at the climax; the Dénouement shows his funeral, or his friends raising their glasses to their absence friend. The star-crossed lovers had to part; the Dénouement shows them going on with their lives, however sadly.

If too long, your reader will suffer from ending fatigue. If it’s missing, there’s no ending.


Over the years, jewelers often put shiny metal foil underneath a gem to make the stone shine brighter. A literary foil is someone who highlights another character’s trait, usually by contrast, but sometimes by competing with him, making snarky remarks, or egging him on.

Sidekicks often serve as foils to the hero by being something the hero himself is not.  Example: a calm and pragmatic sidekick when the hero is hotheaded.

Any two characters or character types can serve as foils to each other. There is a large number of character types that exist primarily for the purpose of being a foil, usually to the main character.

In the classic good-guy versus bad guy scenario, both the hero and villain can each be considered the other’s foil, in that each acts to show how the other behaves in certain situations.

The possibilities are almost endless. Virtually any story with multiple characters can contrast the characters to show greater depths to them, regardless of what side they are on.

Sometimes a foil is a flat secondary character that shows up and sparks a response, then fades away.  The foil can be a recurring character that has opinions and a personality that is different from another recurring character. This character can be the opposite of the character or perhaps very similar, except for a crucial difference.

Many intentional foils are depicted as physical contrasts to the main character. Thin vs. fat and tall vs. short are among the most common ways of setting up a contrast. Similarly, when the hero’s “Love Interest” is blonde, the villainess tends to have dark or red hair or vice versa.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. It has been so long since my college literature classes. Thanks for this refresher.


  2. could have used this months ago when an editor told me my characters were “too tropey”
    thanks, Kathy


  3. Great post. Thanks, Kathy!


  4. Great info! Thanks!


  5. I know I’ve said this many times before, but…great list, Kathy! Such easy-to-understand explanations of what these terms mean/are. Thank you!

    Reading ANYthing about the craft of writing MAKES ME WANT TO WRITE! 🙂


  6. Great list and definitions.


  7. I really enjoy your post, Kathy. They are always so informative. I just wanted to acknowledge your effort. 😉


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