Six impossible things

Cliches and tropes

One of the questions that came up in comments recently was “What’s the difference between a cliché and a trope?”

The simple and obvious answer is “The way the words are currently used on the Internet, not much.” But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Clichés are universally defined as overused and unoriginal, whether the cliché in question is a plot twist, a metaphor, a situation, a character, or even the way someone in real life expresses a firmly held opinion. A trope, though, if you go for the longstanding literary definition, is “a figure of speech, especially one that uses words in senses beyond their literal meanings…The major figures that are agreed upon as being tropes are metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, irony, personification, and hyperbole…” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.

Another definition of trope is “a significant or recurring theme, such as a motif,” and that is, I submit, where the confusion began. Because anything that recurs has, by definition, shown up more than once, and there appears to be a large segment of the modern would-be writing community that considers anything that appears more than once “overused” and anything that has ever appeared in a story before “unoriginal,” even if the previous appearance was in another story written by the same author. Which leads right back to the current status, where trope and cliché are treated as synonyms, and generally looked down on.

This presents a serious problem for many would-be writers, as there is practically no theme, style, concept, plot twist, or character type that has never once been used in the history of storytelling. Even if you limit yourself to stuff that’s come along in the nearly-700-years since the invention of the printing press, you’re going to have a hard time finding a modern story that’s completely original in anything but the specific details. Stories involving cell phones have only been around for a couple of decades; stories about communications problems go as far back as there have been people.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it is pointless to worry too much over originality. Take any story and start boiling it down, and it doesn’t take very long before you get to “Hey, ‘West Side Story’ is just a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet’!” Almost every story focusing on an arranged or forced marriage can be boiled down to either ‘Bluebeard’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ depending on whether the ending is horrifying or happily romantic. There are somewhere between 300 and 600 folktale versions of ‘Cinderella’ around the world, depending on just how strict the criteria are – and that doesn’t count any of the numerous modern versions, ranging from hundreds of Romance novels to movies like “Working Girl” and “Pretty Woman.”

The real problem, in my opinion, is that the terms “overused” and “unoriginal” – which pretty much everyone agrees determine whether something is a cliché – don’t have a clear and generally-agreed-upon definition. Even if they did, there’s the problem of personal experience: if Mr. A has seen Plot Twist X in fourteen of the novels he’s read in the past five years, he may well consider it overused and unoriginal; to Ms. B, who is encountering Plot Twist X for the very first time in her entire life, it is fresh and new. And there are also differences in taste – some readers may consider a particular stock character a special favorite, actively seek out books containing such a character, and consider it a problem that there aren’t more books in which such a character appears, even as critics complain about an overabundance of clichéd characterization.

Furthermore, books in general are not necessarily encountered by anyone in the same order they were written. This is why people can watch their first performance of Hamlet or see The Maltese Falcon for the first time and come away saying “I don’t see why people think that’s so great; it’s full of clichés!” It’s also one of several reasons why young writers are advised and encouraged to read widely and deeply, and not just in their chosen field. It can be very embarrassing for a writer to come up with a clever new idea (“I’ll tell half the story in first person, and the other half in third-person omniscient!”) only to have their professor, agent, editor, or critic comment that Dickens did it better in Bleak House.

Finally, there are genre requirements and conventions. There are probably people out there willing to argue that having a murder in a murder mystery is clichéd, but I doubt that there are many of them, and I don’t think the argument would be taken very seriously. Similarly, it would be rather difficult to write a Romance in which the two central characters have no romantic relationship with anyone, or a police procedural in which no one is a police officer, or a thriller in which nothing and no one is ever in danger. These things have transcended cliché and become requirements of their markets.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the terms “cliché” and “trope” decoupled. They are both potentially useful: cliché, for the truly overused extremes, and trope for the things that become more meaningful, more powerful, or just more comfortably familiar with repetition. Unfortunately, language doesn’t generally move backwards.

  1. Let me try:

    A trope is a story pattern of some sort.

    A cliche is overused instance of a trope.

  2. I’ll use a movie reference that I think describes a trope, but not a cliche. The scene in Young Frankenstein where Igor says “Walk this way.” would be a trope. It has been done in several past movies. There is a scene in the second of the Thin Man movies that uses the same line and similar action for a laugh, and I seem to remember it in a Marx Brothers movie, as well as probably more than one episode of the Carol Burnett Show. It was a staple in vaudeville. However, in each of these, it’s acted out slightly differently, and done well in all cases. For me, Young Frankenstein was the first time I saw it, so seeing it in the older movies gave a kind of wink and nod.

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