A cliché is NOT a trope.
A trope is NOT a cliché.
Tropes are things that are used over and over again. They’re conventional actions, people (archetypes), and things, that make up story the same way rhyming schemes and set meter make up poetry. Tropes aren’t bad. They’re a tool.
Cliché’s are thoughtless generic place holders. They’re frequently the first thought to occur you precisely because you’ve seen it so often. But the Clichéness is in the (lack of) thought, not the frequency.
When you worry that you are going to be cliché, what you’re worried about is that you haven’t thought enough about your story. You’ve taken the first thought that occurred to you and just taken it. Sometimes that’s good, that’s your storyteller instinct. But particularly at the beginning it’s easy to simply take your first thought because you don’t want to think any more about it. So, yes, you do tend to use tropes, and you tend to use the one that you have run into the most in a close situation because that’s easiest for your brain. And that’s bad: not the trope, how you used it.
What I’m telling you is that the Trope isn’t the problem. The problem is how much you’ve thought about it. A trope is a tried and true method for solving a story problem. A cliché is a tried and true story method misapplied. It’s the misapplication that is the problem.
My best piece of advice for dealing with cliché is to stop worrying if your method for solving your story’s problem has been done before. It has. And somebody did it before that. And someone else did it before them. But somehow it didn’t screw their story over. Funny that. Why would it inherently screw yours?
Instead worry if what you’ve done solves your story problem the best way that it can be solved for your particular tale. That’s when you’ve beat cliché: when you’ve mastered the extremely difficult art of correct application, which must be relearned for every individual problem. Not when you’ve miraculously mastered the impossibility of saying something new. Worry about your story, not anyone else’s. Of course what’s happening has been done before. But it’s been done right and its been done wrong. The people who did it right, did so by thinking very hard and rejecting anything that could be done better until it was good enough.
If your question is, “I’ve seen this done a million times. Should I….” Stop. It doesn’t matter. If your question is, “Why does this bore me?” Then you’re on the right track. And the answer isn’t just that it has been done before. It’s that it doesn’t work for your story. The answer that does work will have been just as used, it just won’t be the first thing to pop into your head. “What would make this interesting?” “What else could they do?” “What would have more meaning?” Those are the questions to ask yourself. That’s avoiding cliché, not going on a goose hunt just to avoid eating turkey.
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