Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Misused Advice: Avoiding Tropes and Clichés

Can they really be avoided?

Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Every piece of advice that we talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. Today’s advice to avoid tropes and clichés is slightly different in that we agree…but only to a certain extent. 

What is a cliché?

First, I think we should discuss what a cliché is. According to Merriam-Webster, cliché (noun) has three definitions but only two pertain to this post:

1: a trite phrase or expression (also: the idea expressed by it)

2: a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation

So, for example, a phrased cliché would be “avoid it like the plague” or “blood is thicker than water.”  And examples of the latter definition would be the Mary Sue or Marty Stu (which you should absolutely avoid at all costs) or the brooding rebel.

What is a trope?

You might be wondering why we’re including tropes in this post because some tropes are good and provide structure…at least by trope’s morphing definition, which is commonly attributed to recurring literary devices and rhetorical devices. Isn’t language fun?

But…by its definition from Merriam-Webster, a trope is a cliché:

1a: a word or expression used in a figurative sense: FIGURE OF SPEECH

b: a common or overused theme or device: CLICHÉ

2: a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages

So when I say a trope is a cliché, I mean a badly written trope. Examples of good and bad tropes would be friends to lovers or the unlikely hero and the dreaded love triangle or instant love (love at first sight).

How did this advice start?

I can’t find exactly who this advice started with as we’ve been able to with some of our other misused advice posts, but I can take an educated guess: the need for originality. 

Originality is key for making a good book; readers don’t want to read the same thing over and over again, right? However, this advice is completely ignoring the fact that we authors are creative and find new ways to do things. 

Should we really be avoiding them?

Now here’s the big question, should we be avoiding cliches and tropes or should we keep using them over and over? Well…the answer is a little bit complicated, so let’s break it down into two sections: should and shouldn’t.

Why you should avoid them

So here’s where this post is going to differ from our other posts where we disagree with the vehemence of the advice, because in this instance we only half agree with the vehemence. Employing overused tropes can make the book feel predictable and the author seem lazy, which is death to any book.  

It’s unfortunate to put it so harshly, but it’s true. The experience of reading a good book will be  ruined by a book being too predictable. Reading should be an adventure. 

As for clichés specifically, using them could confuse international or non-neurotypical readers because they won’t make sense in other nations or cultures, may be too rooted in social understanding for a non-neurotypical person to decode, and oftentimes they’ve been repeated incorrectly so many times that they no longer make sense. For example, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” You can. You absolutely can have your cake and then eat it. This cliché should be: “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” because you can’t both consume and possess something at the same time. 

Why you shouldn’t avoid them

Authors are creative, and we can find ways to refresh and invigorate ideas with new twists. If we couldn’t, literature would have died out centuries ago because we’d have run out of stories to tell. Of course we want to read about the hero vanquishing the evil and the band of friends that help them do it. And of course we want to read about the friends that fall in love by the end of the book.

With clichés, just the same as they can alienate some of your readers, they can bring them together as well. And they can give quick insight into what’s happening with the characters, such as when a character becomes pregnant quickly saying, “You’re eating for two,” makes it absolutely apparent the character’s condition. They can also make some of your readers feel like they’re at home.


This post may seem a little contradictory, and it is, because the subject in itself is contradictory. For this one, there is no right answer. 


Join us next week as we resume our series on plot archetypes when we talk about tragedy.


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