We’ve all heard the terms “trope” and “cliche” before, likely in negative contexts. Did you know tropes and cliches aren’t all bad, and you can apply them in your own writing effectively?
Today we’re going to talk about what a trope and cliche are, look at some examples of each, and learn if, when, and how you should be using them in your writing!
- What is a trope?
- Examples of tropes in fiction
- How to use tropes
- What is a cliche?
- Examples of cliche phrases
- How to repurpose a cliche in your writing
What is a trope?
A trope typically refers to an overused situation or plot in fiction. Using tropes in your writing isn’t necessarily wrong, but you should be careful to write with tropes in a way that isn’t trite or done-to-death. That doesn’t mean you can’t use tropes–in fact, it might be impossible to write a story without any tropes. There are countless tropes present in every story you’ll read–some are done well, some not so much.
Examples of tropes in fiction
There are so many tropes, you’d never be able to list them all. Any work of fiction you can think of has more than one trope.
To illustrate, I’m going to pick random works from my bookshelf and list the first tropes that come to mind.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is one of my favorite books. You’ll find many classic romance tropes in Austen’s work–she invented plenty of them! Some tropes from Pride and Prejudice are:
- A mother character obsessed with her daughters getting married
- Enemies-to-lovers dynamic
- Characters having feelings they try to ignore
- A rich, snobby male love interest
- A female love interest from a more modest lifestyle
- The charming villain (Wickham)
- The bratty teen daughter (Lydia)
- Opposites attract friendship (Darcy and Bingley)
- Rich bitch (the Bingley sisters)
As you can see, tropes include characters, dynamics between them, motivations, plots, premises, among others.
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is another of my favorite books (and the one I always reference to teach effective prose!). Some tropes in this book include:
- The anti-hero (Ed)
- The good bad girl (Audrey)
- Rape as drama–Ed has to help the woman whose husband regularly assaults her–this is a great example of an incredibly common trope that has run its course and does more harm than benefit. Time to think up something new, writers.
- Will they, won’t they dynamic (Audrey and Ed’s weird romance)
- Breaking the fourth wall–When a character or narrator addresses the audience/reader.
“Breaking the fourth wall” is a good example of how even some stylistic choices are tropes.
Let’s look at some examples from film and television.
- Bury your gays–This is a notorious trope where an LGBT+ character (often the only one or one of very few) is killed for little to no narrative reason OR in the same way the “rape as drama” trope is used–as a harmful and arguably lazy plot device.
- Attractive teenagers in dystopian survival scenarios–The 100 does get better in this respect, even by the end of the first season, by representing what people in these situations might actually look like. The poor kids are never clean again.
- Mercy kill–this happens numerous times throughout the series.
- Gray morality–a repeated theme in The 100 is how there are no good guys. The protagonists must make hard, unfair, often cruel decisions in order to save themselves and their friends. Everyone is looking out for themselves, and no one is better than anyone else.
- Body-count competition–the Grounders keep scars/tattoos on their bodies for how many people they’ve killed.
- Machine worship–Jaha and his followers seeing the AI as a deity falls into the machine worship trope. This is a common trope in dystopian fiction, specifically.
- Population control–originally shown on the Ark when resources are limited in space, but it also recurs a few times later in the series as a parallel.
- Raising a host–Nightbloods raised and collected for the Commander legacy, then in a later season by the Primes as hosts.
- Jerk character has a point–this is when the character everyone hates or loves to hate makes the most logical argument (so almost any idea John Murphy has).
For a movie most of us have seen, let’s look at tropes in Mean Girls:
- Rich bitch bully
- Alpha bitch
- Beta bitch
- New bitch
- Fallen bitch
- This movie pretty much has a bitch for every bitch trope
- Montage of characters introducing another character
- Cool losers (Janis and Damian)
- Bait-and-Switch–when the edit makes it look like Regina is adding Cady to the Burn Book, but she’s really adding herself
- Dumb blonde (Karen)
- Character eating lunch alone–bonus points because Cady eats her lunch alone in a bathroom stall.
- Girls using Halloween as a cover to dress skimpy
- Frenemies dynamic–nearly every friendship at some point in the movie
Most of the obvious Mean Girls tropes are character and character dynamic tropes, because that’s what the movie is about–different personalities blending and clashing.
How to use tropes
As you can see, tropes aren’t necessarily bad things. They’re just common and recognizable story elements.
Tropes should be used intentionally, because your reader will have preconceived ideas about most tropes. Think of a fantasy story with an ogre. Ogres are a creature trope. Every reader will have a different idea of an ogre when they see it presented in a story. Maybe they have an unfounded negative feeling, just because they’re predisposed to an opinion based on the stories they’ve read with villainous ogres. Maybe they have an unfounded positive feeling, just because they’ve seen Shrek.
Consider a writer who is unaware of the “bury your gays” trope because they don’t consume media where it has been portrayed. They might include an LGBT+ character who happens to be killed off, and they might consider that fair representation of a minority group because they simply aren’t aware that it’s a harmful trope that has been thoroughly repeated in all forms of media. Being aware of the tropes you use is imperative, because most readers are aware of them.
You can be aware of tropes by:
- Consuming multiple forms of media in your genre
- One-on-one conversations with minority groups included in your story that you yourself are not a part of
- Hiring a sensitivity reader of that minority
In our writing, we should avoid tropes that promote harmful stereotypes or regressive perspectives on marginalized groups. Tropes are something to be aware of, but we can embrace using them intentionally!
What’s a cliché?
A cliche is a phrase that is overused or stereotypical. Sometimes a trope that has been overdone, is severely dated, or was trash to begin with is referred to as a cliche or a “cliched trope.”
While “trope” is not something to be immediately associated with negative connotations, “cliche” is something to avoid or “fix”.
Cliches are indicative of amateur or lazy writing, but there are ways to write them well! I’ll get into how you can effectively write with cliches in a bit. First, let’s look at an example list of cliche phrases.
Examples of cliche phrases
- Gilded cage
- Head over heels
- Only time will tell
- The calm before the storm
- Kiss and makeup
- Woke up on the wrong side of the bed
- Avoid like the plague
- Low-hanging fruit
- I stopped dead in my tracks
- Stealing candy from a baby
- Right up your alley
- Play your cards right
- All bets are off
- All in due time
- Batten down the hatches
- Read between the lines
- Been there, done that
- Put out feelers
- Rain on my parade
- Stabbed him in the back
- Fire in my blood
- Blood ran cold
- Digging yourself into a hole
- Get your toes wet
- Not the brightest bulb in the box
- Pot calling the kettle black
- On thin ice
You get it.
How to use clichés
Amateur writers often default to cliches because they’re easy to write with! Cliches have been around for a while, they’ve gathered connotations, most people know what they mean–it’s like a writing shortcut: a set of words that already carry all of the meaning you want to use. However, using cliches as a shortcut just makes you look like a lazy writer. You don’t want to write something that’s already been written.
Good news! You can use cliches and still write strong prose by reinventing or repurposing the cliche.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers boasts this advice about re-working a cliche:
“…before going with the cliché, give some thought to the possibility of “turning” it, altering it slightly to render the phrasing less familiar. In a celebrated novel we edited, the writer used the phrase “they vanished into thin air” to avoid a lengthy, complicated explanation. We suggested a change to “they vanished into thick air,” which fit the poetic, steamy atmosphere of the European city in which the scene was set.”
If you have a cliche you’d love to use, even swapping one word–like “thick” for “thin”–might be enough to bring new life to it.
You might add to a cliche, like Taylor Swift in the song Endgame: she takes the cliche “bury the hatchet” and turns it to “I bury hatchets, but I keep maps to where I put ‘em.” She achieves the immediate cultural understanding of what it means to bury the hatchet (forgiveness, putting away old disputes) and adds a layer of keeping maps to where they are, so she can retrieve that dispute whenever she wants to.
Another example of adding to the end of a cliche is a line Harlan Ellison wrote, where he took the cliche “she looked like a million bucks” and turned it to, “she looked like a million bucks tax free.” Just a tiny glimpse of a new aspect can make a cliche impactful.
From one of my own stories, I have the line: “A child was raised on stories of crows–dark creatures with black intentions.” While not direct cliches, a black crow and a dark intent are expected. Swapping language like that is referred to as “diverting expectations”, and it is much the same concept as repurposing a cliche.
TIP: if you know a reader will easily guess how your sentence will end, you might be using tired language.
Grab some cliches from the list above and try your hand at repurposing them in a comment!
Another way you can get away with using a cliche is in dialogue. People speak in cliches, so if you have a dorky character who uses cliches, that’s fine! Anything goes in dialogue–in prose, you’re on thin ice.
We know that cliches aren’t all bad–how do we know if we’re using them well?
Repurposing cliches, as we just saw, can you give you an original piece of writing. But a good way to think about if you’re using a cliche for the right reasons it is to ask yourself if you’re using it for clarity of meaning, since cliches are widely known and understood, or if you’re using them for a shortcut. Easy writing is most often lazy writing.
The skinny of it is: avoid cliches unless you can use them in an intentional and creative way.
Now we know the good and bad of tropes and cliches, how to spot them, and how to use them!