There’s a difference between tropes and cliches, and too many restrictions can harm creativity.
You have never had an original thought in your life, and the crushing reality of that can cause pen paralysis when looking at a blank page. Now, let me set this out straightaway: I’m always in favor of knowing what you’re doing. It’s important to me that craft is undertaken with care and passion, as well as a great education.
But unfortunately, this rules thing has gotten out of control, and it’s discouraging a lot of aspiring authors.
Every time I see an article like “10 Tropes Involving Fantasy Weapons That Should Die In A Fire*” or “20 Screenwriting Tricks And Tropes We Never Need To See Again” (io9 is full of them), I get to thinking, “What’s the point? How do these articles help anyone? Worse still, do these articles conflate tropes with cliches?”
(A quick aside: Roger Ebert wrote a pretty entertaining book about the more common cliches.)
I have no doubt these writers had good intentions when they set about creating their listicles (Just kidding. They did it for ad revenue.), but these proscriptions have been around since the beginning of time. Hell, if you want to feel like you’re doomed as an author, you’ve nowhere better to look than TVTropes.org, where you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of everything you ever considered writing, served up in the most clinical terms.
Now, I’m sure that we can all agree that we’ve had too many dystopian-future movies about children killing each other for the government, right? We’ve got Hunger Games, Divergent, Battle Royale, Battle Royale with Cheese, etc. However, those stories were developed and sold in a vacuum, each one unique enough in its author’s perspective. It’s only when we view all of those stories as a collective, amassed from across the globe, that we say, “God, maybe we’ve had enough of all of that.”
I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to plan around where the zeitgeist will be when your novel/movie/comic/game finally hits the shelves. You don’t know when or if you’ll sell. If you do sell, it’ll be a year before your customers can buy it. If you’re making a movie, it could take five years or more. I can’t even figure out what I’m going to eat for lunch tomorrow, much less predict a five-year cross-cultural trend.
Furthermore, you don’t know that your story won’t mutate in some fabulous way that sets it apart from all of the others as you write. Look at 28 Days Later, a film which debuted to a market oversaturated with truckloads of zombie movies. With some minor alterations, the standard format of “let’s solve a problem” became “let’s explore our humanity as reflected by the love we engender in others.”
Look, I think it’s great to be original, too, but these proscriptions on common tropes are paralytic. My suggestion is that you leave the prior art research to the lawyers and focus on writing a decent story. Capture yourself into your writing: your loves, your interests and your perspective, and forget about all of the haters. If your story requires an ancient, advanced civilization, you put it in there. If you need the cavalry to arrive, only to betray the hero, you put it in there.
I don’t believe that great books come from ironclad plots. I think they come from well-crafted writing that drives my eye across each page toward a fulfilling ending. If you capture your passion into your writing, you will break cliche enough to keep the reader guessing.
But then, maybe the trope-trappers are providing us a valuable service. Let me know what you think in the comments.
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: The phrase “die in a fire” can die in a fire.
**AUTHOR’S OTHER NOTE: Some of these articles can actually be helpful, aiding you in avoiding harmful stereotypes or perpetuation of prejudice. I leave it to your discretion to discern which ones.
Image is a CC 2.0 Share Alike license from Flickr user s58y.