Friday, May 9, 2014

Trope vs cliche

Cliché things that have been overdone, concepts that are overused and on the edge of blasé. Hackneyed phrases, old sayings, the helpless princess in the castle can only be saved by the chosen hero... As a writer, being cliché is often the kiss of death for your dreams of selling your book.

Tropes are similar to clichés. They're concepts that reoccur frequently throughout literature (or a particular genre). But they tend to be less specific. The brave hero, for example, is a trope. She faces danger and saves the day. The hero's fatal flaw is another trope, some weakness that causes her to "fall" at some point in the story, and that she must overcome to save the day.

Tropes are integral to storytelling. We use the baggage that comes with them to set up expectations, to help the reader center themselves, to structure the plot and the series. Any time your hero faces an evil sorcerer, for example, you're using a trope. The reader knows the sorcerer must be defeated; how your hero does so is what makes the book unique and stops it from (or makes it into) being cliché.

Whose a widdle kitty?
(Actually, this is what the hero must save
the helpless dragon prince from)
Yet the difference between the two is fine, and often blurred. Tropes and clichés can be anything from a single word or phrase to an all-encompassing storyline. They both reappear frequently, sometimes too frequently, and people have pet peeves about specific ones and hate them on sight. They come burdened with connotations and implications, and conceptual and storyline clichés are almost always considered tropes (thought not necessarily vice versa). And there are certainly tropes that don't so much nudge into cliché territory as camp out there.

But in general, trope is a concept with more flexibility. For something to be cliché, it must be "played straight"--that is, used as expected. "Inverting" a trope--presenting it in an unexpected way, such as the chosen hero being a lady dragon instead of the cliched human male hero, or the fatal flaw being a purely placebo Kryptonite--usually results in making a story interesting, or at least humorous. Of course, playing a trope straight doesn't automatically make it cliché--if your hero has her child trapped on the spaceship with her, and the villain knows he can't defeat Super Spy Mom in a straight fight, but has the option of holding her kid hostage, of course he'll go after the wimpy kid--and of course Super Spy Mom is going to destroy him for it. Somehow. Sometime.

But maybe her destruction takes the form of letting him discover wimpy kid is actually a Baby Superhero with explosive diapers. Or maybe her destruction is a cold, calculated, intricate plan to get the baby back. Maybe she grabs a nearby hammer and smashes him to pieces in a barbarian rage. Or maybe the baby was an illusion, and the real baby is safe at home--it was all part of the plan for him to destroy himself if he chose to hurt her kid rather than surrender.

Effectively using tropes is knowing that how is more important than what. It comes with knowing the baggage behind a trope, and knowing that tropes are highly interconnected--a mother character could be any one of a dozen tropes (or inversions of those tropes), and you don't know which one until the story lets her reveal herself. Being able to combine tropes in unexpected ways is what keeps a story fresh and unique.

Of course, everyone has tropes they particularly dislike. Sometimes it's just a word; sometimes it's a concept; sometimes it's a particular plot point. But you can't avoid having recognizable points to your story. That's part of story writing.

If you want some ideas on how tropes are used, check out TV Tropes for some amusing reading (and be prepared to spend a week or so clicking through the articles...). You'll find examples of tropes played straight and inverted in all types of media (TV, literature, RPG games, and more).

What's a trope you've seen in a modern show that you enjoy?

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