How many times has THIS happened to you? Oh, this is a bold, interesting, new plotline! Maybe they’ll… Oh wait, it’s THIS trope. AGAIN. LAAAAAAAAME!
According to Merriam-Webster.com, a TROPE is: “a common or overused theme or device: cliche.”
Tropes are the patterns we see WAY too often in fiction. Think of the young farm boy who sets out into the world in search of adventure, the damsel in distress, the magical sword, the old mentor dying, love me/hate me romantic tension, the bad guy becoming good in the end, the snarky rogue who finds love, etc.
Seeing the same old cliches over and over reminds the audience they’re watching/reading FICTION, which prevents IMMERSION into the story. They’re not watching PEOPLE doing cool interesting things anymore, they’re watching CHARACTERS in a PLOT that was fabricated by some lame writer dude.
How do we avoid cliches in writing?
Here’s my advice:
Don’t avoid cliches in writing.
That’s not right. Here it is:
USE cliches in writing. Use LOTS of cliches. Use the cliche-est cliches you can find!
Here’s the inherent problem with cliches and tropes:
Overused patterns BECOME overused because people LOVE them.
When people like something, they want MORE of it! MORE and MORE and MORE until the whole world is SICK of it!
We’ve all seen trends like this: People like a particular VAMPIRE romance, then EVERYONE starts writing vampire romances, then vampire romances become cliche.
It’s the “ice cream for dinner every night” paradox. Tropes come about when we get too much of a good thing and we start to look for something else. Something NEW and INTERESTING.
See, THAT’s probably what you thought I was going to say. How do we avoid tropes and cliches? Broaden your imagination! Make up NEW patterns! REINVENT the art of storytelling!
The problem is it takes a real MASTER to reinvent ANYTHING fundamental in a way that’s meaningful to more than a few people. Literary fiction tries to do this, art house films also try, atonal music tries, modern art tries–and who really APPRECIATES these things? A VERY small group thinks it’s GREAT and REVOLUTIONARY and the rest of us are just like:
THAT is our problem:
People LOVE cliches and people HATE cliches, so what do we do?
I recently reread one of my favorite novels: Watchmen, written by Alan Moore.
There’s a FANTASTIC scene that illustrates the best methodology with which to approach tropes:
Rorshach breaks into the house of the elderly formal supervillain Moloch and threatens him regarding the murder Eddie Blake, aka the Comedian, a fellow masked vigilante. Moloch tells Rorshach an odd tale about how he awoke one night to find Eddie in his room sobbing and rambling how everything is falling apart. Life is a joke, the world is ending, and he can’t take it anymore.
After leaving Moloch, Rorshach takes a walk, thinks about why people like him do what they do. He thinks about the Comedian and what he stood for. Some people see the world for what it is and do something about it, others bury their heads and hide from it. He says, “[The Comedian] understood. Treated it like a joke, but he understood. He saw the cracks in society, saw the little men in masks trying to hold it together… He saw the true face of the twentieth century and chose to be come a reflection, a parody of it. No one else saw the joke, that’s why he was lonely.”
Then, Alan Moore makes an interesting move.
“Heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great Clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But doctor… I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
The sad clown is a cliche. There’s an irony in the paradox of his profession/place in society and his mood, which is interesting to us. Or that WAS interesting to us. It’s been done, we get it, old trope, no longer interesting.
How did Alan Moore MAKE this trope interesting?
He took the “sad clown” character and made him a tough guy, put him in a superhero suit, gave him questionable morals, constructed contentious relationships with OTHER superheroes, took him to Vietnam–made him a TOTALLY different character. Or at least, made him LOOK like a totally different character.
When we see the Comedian, we THINK we’re seeing something completely new and interesting.
In reality, we’re really just the sad clown again in a DIFFERENT FORM.
By making a cliche LOOK new, changing it’s CONTEXT, reinventing it’s IMAGE–that’s what enables us to enjoy the same old thing we’ve seen hundreds of times. We LOVE tropes, we LOVE cliches–what breaks immersion is when we REALIZE they’re cliches: when we’re made to REMEMBER we’re being told a story.
Alan Moore knew EXACTLY what he was doing with the Comedian and even showed us! But since the new image he had invented was SO vivid, we could still enjoy the Comedian’s character without feeling like we’d seen it before. In a way, we hadn’t.
Remember all those tropes we mentioned at the beginning of the post?
“The young farm boy who sets out into the world in search of adventure, the damsel in distress, the magical sword, the old mentor dying, love me/hate me romantic tension, the bad guy becoming good, the snarky rogue who finds love, etc.”
Did you notice that ALL of these were in Star Wars?
Why do we still LOVE Star Wars if it’s FULL of cliches? Because those cliches all LOOK new and unfamiliar! We’ve never SEEN the young farmboy as a space pilot, we’ve never SEEN the damsel in distress as a planetary diplomat who’s an ambassador to the intergalactic Empire, we’ve never SEEN the magical sword as a LIGHTSABER!
People LOVE cliches. So USE cliches. Use a LOT of cliches and people will LOVE your stories because people LOVE cliches. Just don’t let your audience REALIZE you’re using cliches. Dress them up in new, unfamiliar, wrappers. Hide them. Mask them.
THEN–show us the SAME story with our FAVORITE characters we’ve seen time and time again.
(Hmmm, how to end a blog post about cliches…? Ah, got it!)