A trope is a character, plot turn, setting, or device that is familiar. You’ll find tropes in many novels, TV shows, and movies because they make for great stories and…people like them. Think: the innocent abroad, the sage who advises the naif, the humble warrior, the evil empire. The reluctant hero is found in everything from Star Wars to Divergent to The Hunger Games, to…the Bible. Why? Because it makes for a good story.
Tropes are not necessarily cliché, even though they’re familiar.
A cliché is a hackneyed trope. A cliché isn’t merely recognizable, it’s predictable. It’s boring. It’s overdone.
Okay, so where’s the line?
Much like beauty, one might say the line between trope and cliché is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re well-versed within a certain genre, you might recognize a trope and feel it’s been used to the point of cliché. But if you’re not familiar, the story might seem fresh and exciting to you. The line is a little blurred.
I started writing in the romance genre, and romance is a great place to debate trope versus cliché. To non-romance readers, the whole thing is a gigantic cliché. You might be thinking: let me guess. They’re going to get together in the end. While it’s true that all romances finish with a happily-ever-after, it’s the journey that people want. Readers of romance want to experience the thrill of falling in love. Just because they get there three-hundred pages later doesn’t mean the reader didn’t enjoy the ride.
The same idea can be applied to all genres. You’ve got the Detective Story, the Medical Drama, the Family Saga, the Coming of Age, the Space Opera…and I could go on. But if you’re a crime fiction fan who loves to find out whodunit, you’re going to read on—even if there’s been a dead body on the first page of the last ten books you read.
The Twist is Key
The key to keeping trope from veering into cliché is the twist. Romance readers wouldn’t have turned that genre into a billion dollar plus industry if literally the same novel were being cranked out year after year. Maybe someone’s a sucker for a cowboy romances, but the actual cowboy and intricacies of the plot are different. Maybe someone loves an alpha male, but he could be a billionaire or rugged outdoorsman. Maybe this doesn’t do it for you, but chances are, there’s a trope you’re a sucker for too.
Lest you think tropes are merely confined to romance, think about a beloved story like The Incredibles (which my son is watching in the airplane seat next to me). Here, Pixar turned the superhero trope on its head. Yes, we still get car chases and bad guys, but now the heroes have to negotiate changing needs in a marriage, midlife slumps, and protecting their kids. All of that makes defeating the villain even more herculean.
The Bottom Line
Know your tropes. Read in your genre. Be aware of literature. Yes, literature. Think the succession drama from Hamlet is the first or last time that story line came up? The point is: you need to know that. There’s nothing wrong with using tropes. They sell because people like them. But in order to do it successfully—and to keep from backsliding into cliché—you need to be well-versed enough to know when you’ve come up with a unique twist…or be aware when you’re aping your favorite author.