Thoughts on Writing: Tropes & Cliches

Many young writers, I assume, are a little overly obsessed with making their story the most original thing ever. And by original, I mean some balls to the walls concept that NO ONE has EVER thought of – something so far out any reader would be hopeless not to sit back and go “wow, ain’t that original!

Here’s the problem: it’s pretty much all been done before. Especially in fantasy. I made countless attempts to make a story to subvert all tropes of the genre, and in doing so just made an incoherent mess. Just browse around on tvtropes.org, you’ll quickly discover that whatever brilliant concept you have not only has been done it also has a name for it.

You may have heard of this before, but there’s only seven basic plot concepts that pretty much every story is based around one way or the other:

“Overcoming the monster” (the monster can even be the protagonist, if it’s person vs self)

“Rags to Riches”

“The Quest”

“Voyage and Return”

“Comedy”

“Tragedy”

“Rebirth”

Another common claim is the “mono-myth” structure that every story supposedly follows, even if just partially, although it’s so vague I don’t find it particularly useful.

 Tropes exist for a reason: they work. And whatever brilliant idea you think you have, chances are it’s already one. I had a friend in High School who was obsessed with this – everything had to be 100% original (or, at least, original in his eyes) or else it was banal and worthless. This probably stuck with me longer than it should have, and as a result I couldn’t finish a story as every ending seemed “done before”. Surely they’d see it coming!

The trick is to work with them, and do your best to have these tropes operating in the background. You want to story to be about the characters, and how well you can get your readers (or viewers) to relate and connect with them. Even the most plot centered stories require characters that are at least likable – without this there’s no emotional journey or catharsis and the story is essentially dead weight. How can your audience give a hoot about the plot when they don’t even care about the people it’s suppose to be happening to? Short answer: they won’t.

But, you do want the concept and plot to have some originality. Blatant rip offs are generally frowned upon and considered lame (i.e: Eragon) , as far as I see it, so how does one pull this off? This brings me to my next point: cliches.

If you want to write a subverted plot, you don’t need to come up with some 100%-never-thought-of-before idea (because there aren’t any), you just have to set the reader up for a “ah, I know where this is going) moment, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. Cliches are a good way to do this. Because they’re so over used, they’re identifiable immediately and can set up a false perception of what the plot is about – just make sure to leave enough hints and clues that things might not be quite as they seem. If you make things too cliche, your reader/viewer probably won’t stick around for the twist. As with most techniques in writing, subtlety is best.

Remember: if someone tells you your story idea has “been done before”, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing: Tropes & Cliches

      1. I’ll do the best I can, but I’m still learning as I go – I have yet to finish a long form project such as a novel. I intend to put out more pieces like this one as well. The number one advice I can give, and still have trouble sticking to myself, is to write every day, and finish what you start!

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