I’ve been thinking a lot about tropes and clichés lately. Between editing a previous trilogy with a foundation built on tropes–including everything from the Chosen One to vampires and werewolves to old men who know all yet tell nothing–and planning a new series that uses even more–and this time, purposefully–plus simply observing the dialogue surrounding the industry, with the constant desire to have something new, without clichés and tropes, grace the bookshelves; it is hard not to think about these things and form an opinion about them. Are using clichés and tropes good? bad? Do they help or hurt your writing? Does writing become less if they are incorporated?
I don’t have an answer to those questions. Opinions, sure, but no answers. Because every answer to them is subjective, like the opinions that help form those answers. Here are my subjective musings:
I’m very thankful for the tropes and clichés I’ve incorporated into my writing, because they have taught me a lot. I know the Chosen One plotline has been done a lot in fantasy. That didn’t stop me from writing a book about a boy who was chosen, through luck and unfortunate circumstance, to save the world. It also wasn’t the reason I wrote that book, either, to incorporate those clichés. Instead, I simply wrote a book about a kid named Darryn, who just so happened to fit the Chosen One mold. As I learned more about Darryn, that was what he fit into. That is how the story took shape and I went with it. Does that make him and his story cliché? Absolutely. Does that make him impossible to be unique?
I don’t think so.
Yes, his story incorporates a ton of tropes. Yet he is still different because it is a new story. It is a story written by my hand, with different characters and a different world. Will it feel familiar, one day, to readers, if it ever makes it that far and has a chance to be read widely? Yes, definitely. Yet will they find something they still enjoy, something to complain about, something they hate, something they love, regardless of how many tropes I used?
I hope so.
In my quest of querying and publication, Darryn hasn’t gotten the light of day due to the tropes that build the foundation of his world. And I understand that, 100%. It isn’t the most original storyline. Though I wish Darryn would get a chance, I haven’t given up hope on him yet. One day, I think his story will be read. And that will be exciting, tropes or no tropes. To be quite honest, however–and show my own naiveté–I didn’t realize how many tropes I incorporated until I started trying to get it published. And while I have my own spin on them, they are still tropes and they are still roadblocks, currently, in my publishing journey.
But in my writing journey, they have only opened doors.
You see, like many creative souls and many people in general, I doubted myself and I doubted my craft. I still do. Even as I began mapping out Darryn’s story, discovering what was going to happen next, I doubted whether I had the chops to make it happen. It took me a long time to start writing it, because I doubted myself as a writer. So perhaps, unconsciously, tropes surfaced in the story to give me confidence; writing something similar that I have read dozens of times and enjoyed might help convince myself this “writer thing” isn’t a fluke. I don’t know. I never really thought about it. And despite having the dream to get published one day, I didn’t write Darryn’s story to get published. I wrote it because I had a desire to tell it and that desire outweighed any other fears or doubts or tribulations. It was the story on my heart and so I wrote it. And then I edited it. Over and over again. I tried to craft it in a way that readers would enjoy reading it and maybe, yes, one day, it would get published.
And then it got rejected. Over and over again.
Too long, they said. Too generic, too cliché. Not original, not unique. Try again next time.
Though the rejections hurt at first–and the doubt that I could never write anything original and would always be a cliché-writer took hold–eventually, I shook off the negativity and continued Darryn’s story. It might not be “good enough” to be published, but he certainly wasn’t done with me. So I wrote the second book. Then, the third. Two prequel-type books linger in the back in my mind. Seeds have been planted to allow for a sequel-series, if I wanted to explore that avenue. Then, editing all the while, I moved onto a separate book, in a new genre, new age range and an entirely different plot. And I finished it. And now, as I slowly plan out the bare minimum for a nine/ten book series, eager to start writing it despite having no idea where it is going, I’ve shared the central idea with a few people; friends and family and a few writing colleagues. The initial response:
Wow, that sounds awesome! Or: It’s going to be a lot of work, but I can’t wait to read it once you’re done. And, my favorite: That’s so unique. I love that idea.
Unique, they said. Calling one of my stories unique, when my first work has so many tropes, it was as if I was trying to pack them all in, instead of being completely unaware until after the fact. Of course, I recognize all this is biased praise, looking at the source. Yet it got me thinking and here’s what I conclude:
Clichés and tropes aren’t for everybody. They have been around for ages and at some point, they worked, enough to become the elements in stories that, now, agents groan over and audiences beg for something different. Some people label them as overdone. Some people hate them. Some people use them as the mark of a “poor” writer. These people may be right. I do agree that branching out and trying to create new, engaging storylines is never a bad thing. I hope to write stories that reach that calibre, one day. At the same time, a little familiarity never hurt me, and also, excites me, in a way. When I read a new book with tropes and clichés as center-pieces for the plot, it makes me wonder: if I’ve read this plotline a dozen times and here it threads again, what did the author do to make it different? It’s almost like a game, setting up my expectations through familiarity and then suddenly changing them when the twist hits. I think that is another way to make something unique.
Personally, I will always be indebted to clichés and tropes. They helped build the first novel I ever attempted and didn’t give up on, but instead, finished. They helped me thicken my skin through the rejection process. By unknowingly using them and suddenly having them pointed out to me, I became more aware as a reader and a writer, and started challenging myself to think outside the box. And now, as I begin work on my next series, they have been the direct inspiration–and will play a major role–within that series; a series that has already been coined unique (even biasedly-coined) and I haven’t even written a page yet.
Should you use clichés and tropes in your writing? That’s up to you and the stories you want to tell. If you want to be published, the more creative you can get and the more outside-the-box you can think, they better your chances are. You might want to stay away. But if you have a story in your heart where tropes abound, write that story. Sure, it may not get published. But it matters. It is your story and it will help you, in some form. Tell the stories in your heart. Listen to advice and criticism, but never abandon yourself and your work. Stay true to that, keep fighting, keep writing, keep learning, and you’ll make it, in whatever form “making it” takes.