I joked recently on Twitter that I knew how to tell the difference between a cliché and a trope – if shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons parody something, it instantly became a cliché if it wasn’t one already. I can further this by saying that it isn’t just limited to US animated comedies – I realised that a certain device in my own novel was a cliché while watching Charlie Brooker’s Touch Of Cloth. I then had to trawl through the book and take out any examples of this offending device. Thankfully, there weren’t actually that many.
‘So, come on, what is the difference between a trope and a cliché?’, I hear you ask. And the answer, frustratingly, is not so cut-and-dry. A trope is, effectively, a widely-used but importantly widely-accepted dramatic device. It might be the villain dying at the end of a crime story, the lead male and female getting together by the end of a romance novel or a city being destroyed in an apocalypse story.
A trope becomes a cliché when it changes from being widely-used-and-acceptable to over-used-and-groan-inducingly-unacceptable. How many trailers for an end-of-world film have we seen with a tall building getting knocked down by a giant wave? Cliché. How many slasher-horrors, where the monster is shot, stabbed, burned and impaled on a spike, does he rise again? Cliché. (Family Guy parodies this one brilliantly with a giant chicken.)
If, while reading a book or watching a movie, we think to ourselves or say out loud ‘Oh-Not-This-Again’, then, yeah, it’s probably a cliché. The problem is that it’s all very subjective. One viewer/reader might find the monster-impaled-on-the-spike acceptable / enjoyable while another thinks it’s hackneyed and done-to-death.
Thankfully , there is no shortage of guidance on how to make sure the devices we use are tropes and not clichés. Writer Craig Watson of the FearsAndFables blog, for example, offers us some brilliant insight on the subject. Drawing comparison between writing and cooking, Craig suggests that we take our ingredients – plot, character, devices – and use them to cook up something that won’t be spat back in our face. He reasons that using a cliché as one of our ingredients is akin to using an over-used or boring food when cooking a meal – no matter how amazing our culinary skills are, the tainted ingredient will have already spoiled it.
On the subject of avoiding cliché, guest blogger QuickandDirtyTips.com Sal Glynn defines a cliché as a metaphor that has become tired through overuse. She gives us a brief history of the cliché and advises us how to avoid them. She also suggests that the cliché actually does have its use. When writing a first draft, for example, we might want to stick in a cliché so as to keep the writing flowing and not stop to come up with an alternative. We should only do this, she stresses, if we plan on coming back to it to remove or fix any clichés.
Authonomy, HarperCollins’ social networking site for writers, offers us the Holy Grail – an A to Z listing of expressions/catchphrases we should avoid. It’s unlikely, as we write our ninety-thousand-word novel, that we can circumvent them all – some might actually represent what we’re trying to say – but, when possible, we should try and come up with an original alternative – we are writers, after all.
TV dramas, be they soap-opera, crime-procedural or science-fiction, are formulaic. This isn’t an insult – TV drama viewers rely on their favourite show to follow the same formula in every episode. But it is the reason that TV drama relies heavily on tropes and, and as result, is at risk of falling foul of clichés. TVTropes.org is an invaluable tool for anyone writing for TV. Listing pretty much every trope that exists in the TV drama universe, it shows us how to walk that tightrope of writing, perfecting and then using tropes and not falling into that piranha-tank of clichés.
In relation to writing novels, the genre most in danger of cliché-use is romance. Due to the constant high volume of romance novels published to meet demand, there is the risk that a story device will descend from ‘Fresh’ to ‘Trope’ to ‘Cliché’ virtually overnight. Writing-world.com has a great bead on what romance-writing devices are now considered clichés and suggests that the clichés can be re-engineered into something original.
Lastly, for a three minute blast of what film-writing devices are now clichés, the parody Movie Trailer by comedy duo Britanick covers them all.
“I’d rather babble away and at least partially express something difficult than reproduce impeccable clichés.” – Thomas Mann.
When Clichés Attack.
Author Craig Watson’s insight into how to use tropes and avoid cliché.
“Cliché: A theme, motif, or convention of a given genre that has been overused so much it makes readers want to tear their own eyes out.”
Enlist the Anti-Cliché.
Sal Glynn tells us how clichés can be a writer’s worst enemy.
You can admire the creator of Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining, but coming up with something of your own will please readers more.”
Avoid Them Like The Plague.
Authonomy.com’s A-Z of clichés.
“Not to beat around the bush or hedge your bet, this section is a must-read because it calls a spade a spade and in a nutshell leaves no stone unturned to pull the rug from under those off-the-cuff, old-hat bête noires.”
TV Is Formulaic (But That’s a Good Thing).
TVtropes.org is the encyclopaedic resource on creating and using tropes in TV-writing .
“Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”
The Cliché Dangers In Writing Romance.
Writing-world.com advices us how to avoid, or re-invigorate, clichés when writing romance novels.
“By avoiding the clichés, or at least revitalizing them, you can write a richer, fresher book, and give your book a better chance at succeeding.”
A spoof movie trailer showing pretty much every movie cliché.
“I’ve decided to fight with the Native American metaphor against the American military metaphor.