What Is a Trope vs. a Cliché?

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2024-02-06

You may have heard the terms “trope” and “cliché” before, but do you know what they are? Contrary to what many people think, these terms are not synonymous. While both terms involve the use of patterns, one can elevate your writing, while the other tends to drag it down.


What Is a Trope?

A trope is something instantly familiar to readers: a character type, setting, plot point, or style of writing that is recognizable and tied to a specific genre. (See my blog on genre types for more information.)

For example, there are many facets to the romance genre, but one familiar story structure is the “enemies to lovers” plot. This pattern is immediately recognizable to readers, and although it is a pattern that is used often, writers are still finding new and unique ways to spin it, and readers still love engaging with this pattern.

Another popular trope is that of “The Chosen One.” Think about it: Both Luke Skywalker and King Arthur find a magical sword, receive the guidance of an older, wiser mentor, and go on a journey to storm a stronghold to save a princess. Even though the building blocks are the same, the stories are vastly and entirely different … and centuries apart!

There are hundreds of ways to apply this trope and come out with a unique and fresh story.


What Is a Cliché?

A cliché is a device, expression, or phrase that has been used so often and in so many places that readers have become tired of it, and desensitized to it. While it once may have been a fresh, intriguing idea, now it is tiresome and has lost any meaning it once had. For example, some may consider the “twist” at the end of a book (or movie) being that “it was all a dream” as a cliché. Clichés can also refer to phrases, such as “red as a rose” or “dead as a doornail.”

Using clichés in your writing can also make the story predictable. For example, people make jokes about all those Hallmark Christmas movies: you know, a Grinch-y, high-powered businesswoman travels home to her small, Christmas-loving town for the holidays, meets a buff bakery owner/Christmas tree farmer/handyman/etc., who shows her the true meaning of Christmas and they end up living happily ever after.

Well, many people may argue that those movies are clichés and all too predictable. And maybe they are! But there’s clearly still a market for such stories, so really, who’s to say?


Tropes Are Necessary!

Tropes are the conventions, ideas, or motifs that make up the basic building blocks of all storytelling. You can no more write a story without tropes than you can build a house without bricks, windows, and doors. In order to tell a fantastic story, tropes are necessary, whereas clichés are not.

But why are they necessary?

Well, tropes are baked into every genre that we know and love. If you’re writing a western novel, chances are you might have a lone cowboy or a bumbling sheriff in there. If you’re writing a thriller or mystery novel, you might find yourself creating a gritty, lone-wolf detective, who acts first and asks questions later.

However, just because these tropes have been used before, doesn’t mean they’re tired, or that you’re not an original writer. Writers are still finding fresh ways to put a spin on tropes of all kinds, and taking those building blocks of storytelling to build entirely new and unexpected things for us to read.


How to Use Tropes Effectively

First, if you’re writing in a specific genre, you should be intimately familiar with the tropes of that genre. Knowing them inside and out means you’ll have your best shot at subverting them and spinning them in new ways that readers will enjoy. Also, knowing the tropes that are tied to the genre you’re writing in will help you determine what may be veering into cliché territory.

Second, think of books in the genre you’ve read before. Were there any that you didn’t like? Ask yourself: What specifically made you not like that book in particular? It might be that a trope was not used effectively, and if you can identify exactly what disappointed you about the way that trope was used, it can help you discover what you wished that writer might have done differently. And then: poof! Just like that, you have a thread of inspiration you can pull on to get some ideas for your own story.

Remember: tropes are patterns. And patterns can be twisted, bent, and manipulated. Just be careful not to break the pattern, or you risk readers finding it difficult to relate to a trope they cannot recognize and therefore relate to.

In the end, don’t worry about whether or not you’re relying on tropes. Instead, devote that brainpower to dreaming up how you’ll use a trope in a unique way that fits and enhances your story!



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