Are tropes and cliches all that bad?


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,  



6 comments to Are tropes and cliches all that bad?

  • My favorite would probably be Foreshadowing Death. Or as I like to call it, The Ben Dickson. I call it the Ben Dickson because of an episode of Robotech where the guys just sit down for a break and a well earned reward of steak and the klaxons go off and all hands are called for a battle and just before they race off, Ben looks down at his steak, sighs, and says, “Now don’t you go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” The scene closes on the lonely steak before switching to the big battle. And, Ben never returns. Now, every time I see it done, I think about that episode and chuckle, sometimes pointing and shouting, “The Ben Dickson!” which tends to get the most interesting quizzical expressions from those around me.

    I think any trope or cliche is fair game if done well, though you’re right. You don’t want to go overboard with ’em.

  • kwlee

    Hah! I’m glad I’m not the only one that remembers that show. Gotta love big, transforming robots.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Westernish mystery lately, and I’ve always liked the cliche of the tough lone sheriff trying to do right. Then, Westerns are full of those type of stock characters. Somehow they’re still fun.

  • Clichés become clichés because they are an efficient and effective means of getting across an idea. And it is sometimes better to just go with the tried-and-true phrase or structure than to attempt to come up with something clunky to replace it. As Fowlder wisely said, “The obvious is better than obvious avoidance of it.”

  • I’ve always been a fan of the lone wolf detective–male or female. I’m actually trying to play with that in my WIP. My protagonist is alone, but not by choice. She hates being alone and is doing everything she can to fit in with others and belong to a group.

  • Megan B.

    I think you are totally right. If writers avoided tropes entirely, many types of characters (such as your tough female detective) would be basically impossible to use. And that would be silly. The key, as you say, is to give it your own spin.

    As I was reading your post, I also got to thinking that tropes can work really well for minor characters who only appear once or twice. You don’t have time to flesh them out, so using something the reader will instantly recognize could be helpful.

    Wolf, I love that quote! Never heard it before, so I have to thank you for drawing my attention to it. The key, I’ve come to believe, is using the cliche to describe something relatively unimportant (so as not to waste time and effort on a brilliant turn of phrase just to convey something mundane–something that should not be distracting to the reader anyway) and to come up with a unique phrase for important moments. If that makes sense. Of course, some cliches are so overdone that they should be avoided like the plague 😉

  • Razziecat

    Years ago when I was doing worldbuilding for my space opera characters, I wanted to avoid stereotypes in my two main characters and their respective cultures. So the ones that are more tech-reliant have a thriving religion complete with gods and temples; and the other planet has a moon-based spirituality that ties in with nature and planetary rhythms, but they don’t believe in any actual dieties. This way I don’t fall back on the easy way out when I need rituals, prayers, and other religious practices or values to show up in a story.