Narrative Clichés and Other Tropery
Image via flickr by Louis Bavent
You may have heard the term “narrative trope” before. You also may have associated this phrase with the more well-known “cliché.” If this is the case, then you’re absolutely right in assuming an association. Tropes and clichés are closely related narrative terms. But there’s an important difference that could save your life some day. Well, probably not. But it’s significant nonetheless, particularly for writers.
Tropes are recurring narrative themes that we see and recognize across many different works of fiction. Clichés are the same thing. It’s just that clichés are painfully overt and distract from the plot. Basically, a cliché is a bad execution of a good trope.
Predictably, tvtropes has the best definition of what a trope is. You should all go take a look at that. Essentially, tropes aren’t bad. They are useful tools that help tell good stories. Narrative patterns exist for a reason; they’re effective. Over the decades, writers have discovered methods of storytelling that are emotionally intriguing, thematically entertaining, and plot-advancing. That’s what tropes are.
Tropes are also tropes because audiences are able to quickly understand what’s going on. This could be on account of an over-saturation of these tropes in media, but it could also be because humans are perceptive creatures. Certain thematic elements trigger our brains and give us information about a story. People watching Return of the Jedi might not consciously realize the significance of the lighting on Luke during the final confrontation. But they know that he is straddling the fence between good and evil. And the harsh contrast in lighting on his features subconsciously adds depth to this struggle.
Another example is the dashing swashbuckler trope. We instantly know who this character is by his choice of attire and dramatic flourish. Just when he’s most needed, he swings into battle at the last second with weapon at the ready. He has a penchant for being suave and flirtatious, though he also has a heart of gold.
If over-embellished, this trope can turn into a cliché. If audiences become bored with the character’s stereotypical mannerisms, then it’s a cliché. To properly use the trope, it becomes necessary to add some interesting quirks to the character. Perhaps your dashing swashbuckler is an old woman who has since retired from the adventuring career path, but is now forced back into it because of the plot. Perhaps the swashbuckler is a burly man of few words, yet he rushes to the aid of his friends nonetheless. Or here’s my personal favorite: the dashing rogue with a heart of fool’s gold. The swashbuckler only pretends that he has a heart of gold. Deep down, he really is a rotten scoundrel with no concern for anyone but himself.
It’s sometimes difficult determining whether a story element is a cliché or a trope. Some tropes are taken at face value and used ironically to poke fun at the trope directly. In the popular cartoon series Gravity Falls, Mabel refers to one of the characters as a “walking, one-dimensional, bleach-blonde, valley girl stereotype.” The writers for the show seem very trope-aware, and so are able to use them to their advantage.
In the end, the best method for determining the difference between a trope and a cliché is the reactions of the audience. If they’re groaning, it’s probably a cliché. If they start groaning, but then let out a surprised chortle, it’s probably a good use of a trope. And that’s really what you look for. Turning a trope on its head is a tried and true method of keeping a story fresh. Even the valley girl stereotype from Gravity Falls eventually gained some depth and became an interesting character.
The tvtropes website can be a useful resource for researching established tropes. Each page has a section that provides examples of the titular trope across literature, film, comics, etc. One effective approach to trope research is to look up the media page on tvtropes for a film or novel that you love. From there, you can see every trope that occurs within the story. This really tears down the veil of ignorance between you and the writer. All their tricks are laid bare for you to pick apart and examine.
It should be noted that tvtropes is notorious for being a time-sink. People have been known to become lost in the depths of that place, clicking link after link after link. So be careful. If you’re doing research for your story, make sure you allot a specific amount of time. Don’t get so wrapped up in the research that you forget to actually write.
So remember: tropes are fine. Clichés bog a story down and break the illusion. Keep it fresh and interesting, and you’ll be fine. Happy troping!