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‘It Was All Just A Dream’ and Other Literary Tropes To Avoid Like The Plague

By David Young · February 23, 2022

Some literary tropes can put a real damper on your storytelling.

Are you having trouble with exposition? As a writer, it’s not uncommon. But just as there are good ways to give your audience all the right information, there are also methods that should be avoided.

Explanatory tropes in TV and film are a given: you’re expecting to see an introduction to the world of the story, as well as devices like subtext, allegories, and allusions.

From script to screen, these things will happen — but there are times when the device used to explain something beats the audience over the head, or even worse, insults their investment in the story.

Whether you know of a successful story that uses a bad explanatory trope is not the point. There are financially successful films out there that are not well written (you know a few, I’m sure). What we’re talking about is how these tropes can make your story less interesting and engaging, as well as why they should probably be avoided.

With that in mind, let me lead you through some the worst ways to explain something to your audience!

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead. Watch out!]

“It Was All Just A Dream”

No, I don’t mean Inception. The question of reality as part of a movie’s integral argument can still make a strong story. What I’m talking about is this: When a story you’ve invested in turns out to not have been real the entire time. The Wizard of Oz is by far the most famous example, but if you’re emulating a movie that old, you’re not writing for a modern audience.

And yes, it’s considered a cop-out now to do the same thing: that’s why Donnie Darko is lazy (fight me) and why Swiss Army Man lacked a cathartic ending.

Now, that said, déjà vu is a great device when it’s employed intelligently, and the idea of a stalker romanticizing his approach is obvious story fuel. However, choosing to explain everything away with this trope feels cheap, and audiences agree: if you aren’t introducing the idea of questioning sanity and reality from the get-go, then the “It Was All Just A Dream” trope is not right for your story.

Swiss Army Man

‘Swiss Army Man’

“The Before Times”

Ah, the apocalypse. It goes by many names, most of them terrible. Have you ever watched a story that refers to “the before times”? A kid asks about how things “used to be” before the Great Flood, the Great Fire, the Great Divide, the Great War, or God forbid, the Great Plague. Whatever it was that happened in your story world’s history is obviously not so “great” if it killed all these people and left the world changed forever, right?

So, what’s the problem with this one? Well, it’s unnecessary in most cases. You can see it in many stories that happen “After The End”, or in the aftermath of that huge catastrophe that changed civilization as we know it. While useful tools like a leftover diary would make it easy to learn what “The Before Times” were like, it’s easy to get heavy-handed with a world that no one will care about. Yes, that’s right. No one will care — because you’re writing about what happened after that.

Over-explaining stuff like this gets waved away as “worldbuilding” by the inexperienced and the obstinate, but worldbuilding is a subtler art. You can write out what happens in your story’s backstory, but don’t put it in your script, for the sake of your audience. Just put the stuff that really, truly matters to the plot, and I promise, it’s going to be a lot stronger for it.

I Am Legend

‘I Am Legend’

“As You All Know”

The audience surrogate is very popular. Ridiculously popular, and for good reason: whether it’s the introduction into a mockumentary like What We Do In The Shadows as the POV camera operator, or whether it’s a character getting hired onto a quirky team like in other ensemble comedies, this is a tool that people know and appreciate.

But, as I said, it’s very popular. That means there are plenty of examples of doing the audience surrogate incorrectly, and the worst one is the “As You All Know” explanatory trope.

“As you all know, we’re here to develop a new type of biome that ecologically supports the wildlife found in this part of the rainforest,” says a foreperson as they rile up their research team.

Now, that may explain everything to the audience, but the problem is that it makes dialogue sound unnatural, unreal, and inorganic. No one would have to reiterate their mission, and no one on a team would have to rehash “how things work around here”. It’s nonsense to think otherwise.

Instead, you should be using an audience surrogate who doesn’t know anything about what to expect — like Eleanor in The Good Place.

What We Do In The Shadows

‘What We Do In The Shadows’


It’s hard to get your point across, and it’s even harder to do it in an engaging way. We all have stories to tell, things we want to say — but you should find creative ways to say them, rather than defaulting to something your audience can see from a mile away, like a group of post-apocalyptic kiddos talking about the way things were before the “Great Big Bad Thing That Happened.”

At the end of the day, the less your audience can anticipate your next narrative move, the more engaged they’ll be in your story.

David Wayne YoungDavid Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.