Tropes vs. Cliches

A trope (in a story sense) is any plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that we recognize as such. It's kind of everything, from the unassuming farm boy to the rebellion against an oppressive government to the wise mentor to the chase scene in which the car smashes through a pane of glass being carried across the street.

Tropes are what make stories run. A story is not good or bad based on whether or not it has tropes. ALL STORIES HAVE TROPES. A story is good or bad based on how those tropes are used.

What we like about tropes is familiarity ("Yay, ninjas!"), excitement ("Oo, the hero's going to get all awesome on the badguys!"), and especially when our favorite tropes are twisted in interesting ways ("I did NOT see that coming").

What we don't like is when tropes are predictable to the point of boredom. That's when a trope becomes a cliche.

Now, cliches are subjective. What's old and tired to you may be brand new to someone else, or it might be someone's favorite trope--they don't care HOW much it's been done; they love it every time. So how do you keep your stories from slipping past trope into cliche? Here are a few ideas:
  1. Be trope-savvy. One of the things I loved about Avatar: The Last Airbender was how it was always aware of its own tropes. Sokka knew he was the comic guy, the plan guy, the boomerang guy, or "the guy in the group that was normal." They knew they were being silly (and yet a little bit serious) when they came up with a name for their group or for the bounty hunter Zuko sent after them.* It worked because they showed you they were aware of their tropes, through action and dialog.
  2. Subvert the tropes. I thought Megamind was fantastic because even though it used all the superhero tropes, it never played them straight. It took one of the oldest tropes (villain captures girl, threatens hero, hero outsmarts villain), showed they were trope savvy (girl mocks villain's threats as cliche), then twisted it (villain kills hero?!). And that was where the movie started. That sort of thing kept me guessing the whole time, even though I knew the ultimate end.
  3. Don't bother. Seriously, the subjectiveness of cliches is one of the reasons you can't please everybody. One completely viable method of dealing with this is to not even try. Use the tropes you love, put them together in ways you think are awesome, then find the people who agree with you.
What do you think? How can we use the same old tropes (there are no new ones) while avoiding cliche? When have you seen it done well?

* And the fact they never tell you his real name proves even more they know the tropes they're playing with:
Sokka: Wait, YOU sent Combustion Man after us?
Zuko: Well, that's not his name, but--
Sokka: Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to insult your friend!


Matthew MacNish said...

LOVE Avatar. The show, not the film.

And proof that even the most trope filled story can be awesome, at least to certain people, like me, just because they love the genre?

Eragon. Star Wars set in a fantasy realm it may be, but Star Wars is awesome.

fairyhedgehog said...

That makes so much sense. All of it!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

You have to thoroughly know and love a trope to get all campy and fun with it - something I'm afraid to do sometimes! I think that someone else (ok, I KNOW someone else) will know more than I do about it and will "catch me out." So, I usually try to go for the fresh twist. But someday maybe I'll be brave enough to be silly. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thank you. That's the best explanation I've heard for separating those two things AND the best advice for when to keep them. I've got a bit of dialog in my first chapter that I just don't know what to deal with. I thought it was fine but one of my betas assures me it's all cliche. So...I can't write, I haven't written, because that part hasn't been dealt with yet. And I'm not sure how to "fix it" to her tastes.

Thanks for giving me some peace of mind to patch it up and move on. After all, it's a YA and my intended readers probably won't have a problem with it as is.

Adam Heine said...

@dragons: I'm glad I could help :-) I think we always have to be careful of cliche, but you're right. Younger readers especially aren't always aware of or too-familiar with all the tropes, and you can often get away with more.

Unknown said...

What about the old "Liar Revealed" Trope? How will that work?