So I’m working on a play, again. Which means I’m up late and my post is late, again. No surprises there, huh?
But something hit me last night as I was watching the final dress rehearsal. The play, BTW, is Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) produced by Davidson COmmunity Players – come by if you’re in the neighborhood.
I was watching the show, and the characters mention something about “the old screen gambit” like in School for Scandal. That got me to thinking, because the entire play uses a lot of comic tropes and plot devices that are ripped straight from the pages of Shakespeare and Flip Wilson, to name a few comedic geniuses. There’s mistaken identity, cross-dressing, girlfriend-stealing, mismatched couples about to be married, inept doctors, clueless priests, and wise old women who are on the brink of death.
Since this epiphany about tropes in the play hit me in a scene without many sound cues, I had some time to think about when and where these things are useful, and when they’re terrible. I use plenty of tropes and cliches in some of my work, mostly in my comedy. And I think that in comedy, especially a fast-paced comedy like Leading Ladies or most of the Bubba stories, tropes can be useful methods of short-cutting your world-building, as long as they aren’t used too heavily that they completely replace world-building. It’s one thing to use the trope of a wise old woman to get around a paragraph of character development because the audience will get it, and another thing entirely to ignore all character development in the blind hopes that your readers will get it.
Tropes can’t replace good writing, but they can get you through a plot point more quickly, allowing you to introduce a character with a thumbnail sketch and then flesh them out more later in the book. For example, I introduce Sabrina Law as a tough-as-nails female detective, a character we’ve all seen a million times. That gives the reader a quick idea of how she will react to many situations as soon as they meet her. Then I can spend six books developing the character to explain why she doesn’t always respond as a cliche should. The trope just forms the skeleton for me to build the rest of the character on, the rest is up to me to hang the meat and muscle on the bones.
There are plenty of plot tropes to work with as well, and not just the mistaken identity things that our friend Willy Shakes was so fond of. All of folklore has passed into trope or cliche at this point, as well as the traditional film plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. All of these give a writer a jumping-off point, or even just a roadmap for how to get there. The most famous plot trope is the Hero’s Journey, which has transcended trope into a framework for a huge segment of Western storytelling.
What are your favorite cliches and how do you bend them to make them fresh? Because that’s the key, taking that one kernel of an overused idea, and skewing it just enough that it’s unique to you, but it retains all the familiarity and connectivity with the audience,