Tropes and Cliches: Breaking the Rules of Writing


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, 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.

5 thoughts on “Tropes and Cliches: Breaking the Rules of Writing”

  1. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
    – CS Lewis

    On an individual basis I think these lists can be very helpful and even help a writer realize a possible fault or problem their stories might have, but if you’re going to use it like a ‘magic formula’ or series of boxes to tick then it is going to work against your work. Overall I would say that any piece of writing advice should be weighed whether or not they work for the author. Many authors suggest making notes and planning your story ahead while Stephen King and a few others suggest not doing any planning. As someone who falls in the middle ground of the two suggestions I would say that the prospective writer should see which one fits his writing style and should not conform to the Planner Method or the King Method if they don’t like it. An extreme example would be Robert A Heinlein’s advice that writers should not re-write their drafts at all except the parts the editor suggests. It worked for Heinlein but I’m sure most writers would agree that its not the best idea.

    The ‘ticking boxes mentality’ is something I will rant against, though, as it can lead to extremes regarding this. The ‘focus testing’ problem, that a lot of entertainment companies are utilizing in an attempt to create hit movies or games, create a stale market place for even good products, and there is also the argument that focus-testing is just there to give legitimacy to a decision already made. Many established companies in the video game industry are trying so hard to be as successful as the Call of Duty franchise that they change games to conform to this blueprint, something that costs their games sales, reviews and / or good cult status (the last refuge of any under-performing IP). A game called Fuze could be considered a case-study of how an appealing initial idea (tongue-in-the-cheek action game) got Frankensteined by focus-testing into something no-one wanted to play (bitter, depressing, brown-tinted, grimdark shooter). In the UK it debuted lower on the sales lists than Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that was four or five years old at the time.

    More notably Hollywood has been recently overusing a list of plot and structure points suggested by a book called Save the Cat to structure their movies, even changing existing screenplays and stories (like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby) to conform to it. Arguably that problem has always existed in Hollywood, but Save the Cat just legitimized executive meddling and ‘checking boxes’ to ‘ensure’ that their investment will be a hit.

  2. Ugh. Save the Cat. Freaking hate that method.

    However, I think there’s a major difference between Save the Cat and 5 Movie Plot Devices that Mark You as a Noob. Namely, it’s that Save the Cat attempts to give you some jumping off points to start writing, but the angry listicle is just the opposite, attempting to prop up a set of rules based in zero authority.

    When I first got started writing, I used The Screenwriter’s Journey like a bible, following the format to the core. You can even see some of Campbell’s marks upon my current work. I’m aware that the method is ethno-centric to Campbell’s personal origins, however, and over time I’ve come to break away from it. Now, it’s just a thought experiment I dust off when I get stuck on a plot point, kind of like doing a tarot reading or rolling on a D&D table. I still consider it a valuable tool in my arsenal, because it helps me start writing, not stop.

    My concern is that, by shouting down plots from the sidelines, the authors of DON’Ts are discouraging people from trying to write, and giving them a wrongheaded idea of what writing is about. The quote from Lewis pretty much nails how I feel, and since he wrote it first, I should obviously have abstained from saying anything, right? 😉 I don’t think anyone was ever helped by saying, “Good lord! That blogger is right! I can’t have orihalcum/unobtanium/mithril in my setting because of reasons!”

    To me, they just seem like snarky ways to knock someone around without actually contributing anything.

    1. My concern is that, by shouting down plots from the sidelines, the authors of DON’Ts are discouraging people from trying to write, and giving them a wrongheaded idea of what writing is about.

      Fair enough. Sometimes the best stories can be made from either utilizing a set of clichés and pre-set genre conventions to not only craft something clever but something new. Earlier this year I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and found it, unexpectedly, to be a pretty savvy deconstruction of fantasy genre tropes without coming across as cynical or negative or snarky. But if someone up the line said to Sanderson ‘We’re tired of seeing stories with Dark Lords ruling over a ash-swept lands where its impossible to do anything clever or new, you noob; throw it into Mount Doom like the macguffin-loaded second-rate ringbearer you are and move on’* they’d have discouraged a great series. Also, I have read stories where the writer ‘tells’ instead of ‘shows’ and it made the book more memorable.

      *I admit I got carried away by that one.

      To me, they just seem like snarky ways to knock someone around without actually contributing anything.

      You may be right, and the feeling of superiority and aloofness it seems to give may be part of the appeal. Roger Ebert called snarking ‘cultural vandalism’ and went on to say: “The practice involves holding someone up to ridicule not so much for anything they actually did, as for having the presumption to be who they are.” A multitude of YouTube videos will back this up unintentionally as people savage indie-artists, home game designers, etc, simply because they can and have an audience who sees such behaviour as acceptable. I think snark (and its cousin, sarcasm) have become particularly destructive lately since people put the right to laugh and ‘be funny’ over the responsibility to engage.

  3. Every rule about writing will apply to what you’re currently working on.

    Every rule about writing is wrong for you!

    Yes, there are some basic grammar rules, but for the most part, write! Figure stuff out. Don’t be jammed into a box. Just because you read a rule that says “Start your book with someone being killed to draw in the reader” doesn’t mean you have to do that. There are 10,001 exceptions to every rule you’ll read.

    Rules about writing aren’t rules and shouldn’t be applied as “Hard and Fast” rules. They should be guidelines. Make you think a little. “Oh, so having my character draw a flaming sword in the heat of battle would be a little silly? Pfft, I want the silly!” It shouldn’t deter you from what you’re planning, just make you aware of what you’re doing so you can either do it a little differently or just have fun with it.

    I’m writing a book about giant robots. One about super heroes that don’t really have super powers. One about a galactic war. Gee, ALL of these have been done to death, and I’m embracing every bit of it. Rules be damned!

    Anyway, didn’t mean to be all ranty. 🙂 Thank you for your post, Alex. I’m looking forward to more! WOO WOO!

  4. Words of encouragement and truth. I have never been so fearful of my pen (okay, keyboard) than I was after reading an entire book on tropes. I was ashamed of every stupid idea in my brain because, for goodness sake, how unoriginal can I be without even knowing it?
    Tropes exist for a reason. They resonate with people, therefore they work. I love the CS Lewis quote above.

    And really, there can never be enough dystopian futuristic young adult fiction novels 🙂

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