How a trope becomes a cliché

August 16, 2009

To spin a poor simile, writing fiction is a little bit like cooking. You take your ingredients – usually a variety of characters – you marinade them overnight in something juicy to give them flavor, then you toss them into a pot (or plot, as the case may be) with a number of literary devices sprinkled in for good measure. You stir like crazy, hoping you’ve achieved the right temperature and cooking time, then you give it to someone else to taste and hope they don’t spit it back in your face.

But what of those ingredients? What if you’ve used an ingredient that your diners have eaten so much of in the past that they don’t care for it anymore? Or what if you missed an ingredient that they were expecting so they send the dish back with a complaint?

I’m speaking of course of tropes and clichés.

I think before we go much further we should define the terms. We could argue semantics all day but here’s my take:

Trope: A commonly used theme, motif, or convention of a given genre that is still considered effective or useful as a plot device (e.g. a spacecraft crash-lands on an alien planet and…)

Cliché: A theme, motif, or convention of a given genre that has been overused so much it makes readers want to tear their own eyes out (e.g. buff guy and hot girl defeat the menace and then kiss. Sun sets, roll credits…)

(note to linguistics nerds: I’m fully aware I’m not using the term trope correctly here, and that the word is generally misused. A trope is in fact a rhetorical figure of speech, and what I really mean here by “trope” is “topos” (plural: “topoi”) – a commonplace convention in literature. I choose to use the word trope instead because, well, everyone else is doing it. And also because no one I’ve ever met has heard of Topos before and they usually think it means something tasty you spread on a pita bread…)

I think the key to successful genre fiction (and by successful I mean stories that your target readers will willingly pay for) is to get your tropes in place – hopefully in a fresh and rewarding way – without tipping the balance over into cliché. In other words, use the ingredients they want and expect, but throw out the ones they’ve become tired of.

But how do we tell if we’re writing a trope or a cliché?

We might start by thinking about how a trope becomes a cliché. They are, after all, the same animal in different stages of cultural development. Here’s what I think…

A cliche is a trope that got famous.

That’s right. I believe that an innocent and once interesting convention, when bathed in enough limelight and adored by enough eyes, becomes culturally jaded. This can happen in two ways:

1) A trope finds itself in single work of exceptional magnitude – one that changes the face of a culture and becomes hailed as a “timeless classic”. This is how, for example, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings took a simple premise – the ragtag band of underdogs on a quest across a dangerous landscape – and turned it into possibly the most overused plot device in modern fantasy fiction.

2) A trope, while not brought to stardom by a single seminal work, may instead find itself used in a multitude of smaller works to the same effect – reaching such a large audience through so many mediums that it becomes jaded. This is perhaps why we are constantly subjected to the alcoholic suicidal private detective, the cop who refuses to draw his gun, or the hooker who’s just in it to make money for college dammit!

So what to do, what to do?

I’ll go with the power of three here…

1) Don’t worry too much. Certainly too many clichés can destroy a good story, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever achieve a completely cliché-free work, no matter how hard we try.

2 ) Get your initial drafts read by as many people as possible, especially editors of small press magazines and ezines. These folks have seen every cliché in the book a hundred times over and they won’t hesitate to tell you if you inadvertently included a whopping big one in your piece. More importantly listen to them when they tell you so.

3) Know your genre and your culture. Keep an eye on what’s currently selling through publications such as Writer’s Digest. Find your genre’s top pro-zines through websites like Duotrope or Ralan and read them voraciously. Watch TV, watch movies, and of course read, read, read. The best defense against the accidental cliché is a good offense.

With all this said, there are some writers for whom cliché is a strength rather than a weakness. A writer who knows his or her genre well enough to poke innocent fun at such conventions can become very commercially successful. A writer aware and talented enough to turn a cliché on it’s head at the last moment can surprise and delight a reader. I’d cite screenwriter Joss Whedon as a good example of this talent. In an episode of Whedon’s Firefly, protagonist Malcolm Reynolds says to his crew “If I’m not back in one hour… you come down there and you get me!” (the quote is from memory so if there are any hardcore Browncoats out there, I apologize if it’s slightly off.) It’s a wonderful, humorous moment that defines the character perfectly and re-engages the viewer through the unexpected twist of a common phrase. Clichés usually aren’t our best friends, but they aren’t always the enemy either…

~CGW

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