Sunday, April 28

Trope or Trite?

When is something a tried and true trope? When it it simply cliche?
What got me thinking about this was my promise to get some titles and short synopsis into my publishwer so we can talk about publication dates (assuming she likes what I send her of course). I have a notebook full of ideas, but I'm kind of waffling on a couple of them because suddenly, they seem soooo cliche.
But then again, there's nothing new under the sun, is there?

When I say "trope" in this context, I don't mean it the same way my college lit prof. did. Rather than ways of using words, I'm talking about situational conventions in (usually genre) fiction. The Scary Movie series cheerfully pokes fun at not only individual horror movies, but  horror movie tropes as well: the blonde bimbo (why is she always blonde?) who gets killed in the first ten minutes, the girl alone babysitting, the man in the mask. There's some interesting psychology behind some of these tropes.

Some popular tropes in m/m include the "gay for you" theme, in which the previously self-identified straight man suddenly falls for another guy. Another one (and I'm stealing from Goodreads) is "insta-dad finds himself in need of boyfriend/partner" (usually this involves someone who suddenly becomes the guardian of a younger sibling or a child he didn't know he had until the mother dies, runs off, or is otherwise incapacitated).
Some more general romance tropes include things like the secretary and the boss, the poor rancher and the billionaire neighbor (or land developer) who falls for him/her and saves the farm instead of destroying it. The high school enemies who meet up again 10 years later and become lovers. The naive college kid and the gazillionaire BDSM king. (And seriously why are all subs poor schmucks and all Doms rich?)
Let's face it, we've all seen (and purchased) these stories a million times.
Or maybe that's hyperobole...but you get the idea.
When do those situations move from being tropes into the realm of cliche? And what do writers do when they have a great idea for one of these situations simmering on the not-so-back burner and they suddenly realize crap that just might be cliche! (I would SO love to see Jeff Foxworthy do a " might be writing cliche." skit! Maybe I'll have to come up with one).
So what do y'all thing? What's cliche and what's trope? When does trope become cliche?
What tropes are you tired of seeing and which ones will you read every single time no matter what because you're just a sucker for that kind of story?
Which do you prefer, the stories that push the boundaries of romance (the stories set in unusual places or with unusual characters, like Renn Faires and Circus Big Tents), or more familiar ground like office buildings and ranches filled with sexy cowboys?


Sarah Madison said...

I had to laugh when I read the title of your blog post because I just posted a similarly titled post over at The Armchair Reader earlier this week called Bicker vs Banter. Great minds think alike! :-) Which goes right along with what you were talking about here--how common certain tropes are and why that is so.

I think, though, it has to do with the fact that we read certain kinds of fiction because of their very familiarity. When my day has gone to hell and I am in need of dire comfort, I find myself reaching for the horse and dog books of my youth. Rarely (Old Yeller being the main exception) does the dog die, even though things may look dark for a while. You know there will be emotional trauma and angst, but in the end, everything will be okay.

Same with romance stories. I think many of us *want* the formula. We want to know that in the end, everything will be okay and the two lovers will live happily ever after. We don't want nasty surprises--not when our expectations are for something very different.

And yet, formulas can betray us too. We can be accused of being too formulaic, and that there is nothing of interest, no new insights to share. Well, most of the basic plotlines HAVE been written. What keeps tropes from being cliches is how they are written. Look at The Avengers movie! Yes, the main characters were all super heroes of a sort, but they were up against overwhelming odds, a Nordic god seeking revenge for his childhood, and an implacable enemy race with advanced weaponry! (Of course, we had a Hulk :-)

My point is, view people saw the Avengers, yawned, and said, "Yep, another summer blockbuster movie. Same old, same old." That's because we were already engaged with the characters through previous movies, and because the characters and dialog was so great!

So that's how you get around a cliche--you turn it on its head (and let the heroine rescue the Prince--like Drew Barrymore did in Ever After), or you write such crackling dialog that everyone falls in love with *those* characters, or you toss in some *more* of your favorite tropes (Rescued kittens! A hypothermia scene!) and go for broke. :-)

Or you just write what makes you smile and hope it makes other people smile too.

Sarah Madison said...

Um, that would be 'few' not 'view' people saw the Avengers... hey, it's early and I'm not allowed to have caffeine any more! :-)

H.B. Pattskyn said...

Ever After was one of my favorite movies I think because it did such an amazing job of taking a story we all know and love and totally turning it on it's head (I love the end where he comes to rescue her and she's already done it for herself! Gotta love a strong, smart woman).

Unknown said...

I agree with Sarah (if I'm reading her comment correctly) that a lot of the distinction between a trope and a cliche isn't the specific thing, but how it's done. It's always a good idea to come up with a fresh way of looking at it.

Also, despite some things being "cliche," they will always be popular. GFY will ALWAYS be popular, as far as I can see. It's an archetypal fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Cliches, to me, are about specifics of writing: tired word choices, overused phrases, characters built by cookie cutter. Tropes are bigger fish, about the overall theme of a story rather than the specifics. Tropes became tropes because people like them,b ut any trope can become a cliche if the writer doesn't bring anything original to the table. I mean, if it's a romance, we pretty much know the characters will get from the initial setup to a happy ending. It's how the writer gets us there that makes the story unique. :)

Sarah Madison said...


I know! That scene in Ever After when the Prince is rushing to save her and she meets him on the way out of the Castle because she's already rescued herself? Brilliant! :-)

B Snow said...

What everyone else said. :P It's how you write those tropes.

A friend of mine pitched to an editor and was shot down, being told, "That idea's been done a million times" (or words to that effect). But isn't that the point? That we LIKE that story (trope) and we want to keep reading it, just in a somehow fresh way? Like the princess rescuing the prince, or the villain turning out to be the good guy.

When I feel like I'm slipping into cliche, I try to change something radically, do the opposite of what's expected. Protag and Love Interest about to have a smoldering kiss? Have them bump noses or knock their glasses off.

Re: formulaic -- I don't read books to have the couple NOT end up together, or have the murderer NOT be caught. Which is why I don't read literary fiction.

I don't know that I like any particular setting over another, but I do like Regency romances. And I do get REALLY annoyed with the whole hero-as-millionaire/billionaire/CEO. I get that readers like big, smart, powerful, dominant heroes, but wouldn't it be fun to mix it up sometime and have the hero be the local pot grower? A piano teacher? A stay-at-home dad?

BTW, you know about, right? If not, I'll warn you: you'll lose whole days there. :)

H.B. Pattskyn said...

I get it that readers like big powerful heroes too, but I personally get so sick of the guy with the perfect life saving the guy (or girl in the case of het romance) with the lousy life. I like heroes who are both flawed in some way or at least not so perfect they're unreal.

I got to thinking about it because two of the ideas I've got bumping around in my head to work on this year just seemed *sooooo* cliche (after I sat down and thought about them). There's the boss and the secretary and the high school enemies who grow up to become lovers. I think maybe I'll pick one of those for this year and shift the other idea onto the back burner.

Thanks for stopping by, y'all!

Tali Spencer said...

Tropes got to be tropes because people like them. They're rampant through fiction and that's not necessarily a bad thing, though sometimes it is. Every time I see a Billionaire book (Bred by the Billionaire, Raped by the Billionaire, Seduced by get the idea, and it could be a barbarian or an alien or whatever) I know I'm looking at a Cinderella story. Maybe not exactly, because, yeah, look, it doesn't have a prince...but it does have a ship captain or a CEO or some other prince substitute. And do most Super-Dom BDSM romances, for that matter. I know a lot of doms in real life and, well, not one of them is a CEO. But I know several subs who are. :D The thing is, people want the trope, not the truth.

It may sound like I scorn tropes, but I don't. I love them! I embrace them. Nearly every story riffs off an established trope. I've been reading science fiction and fantasy so long I see stories being reinvented constantly. If I was averse to repetition of story lines or character types, I'd find nothing new to read. A good story well told, that's the key to keeping fiction fresh.

Angelica French said...

A great post and one I will ponder for a while. Thanks for that!

H.B. Pattskyn said...

Tali, I've got a story on the back burner where the Dom is a librarian and the sub is a a big wig at some major company with lots money and lots of power and lots of stress in real life, because those really are the people more likely to end up as subs. I think people have been fed the tropes for so long that, your'e right, it's what they're familiar with and therefore what they want.

I don't actually hate tropes, either (okay, I'm pretty fed up with the billionaire one, but it's popular enouhg to keep selling books, so to each their own :D )