“That’s so cliché”
“Your story is full of tropes”
“It’s been done.”
When I see these mindless rants masquerading as serious reviews, I promptly consider the review itself to be utterly invalid and the reviewer herself to be lazy, unoriginal and vapid. Likely in need of a breath mint.
Let me explain.
A “trope” has come to mean something truthy in our vast internet landscape. (Look up “truthy.”) The person is claiming elements of the work in question are overused, in the same way a song is overplayed on the radio. Merriam-Webster has conceded to this ugly connotation by including in its definition a reference to the word cliché.
Oxford does not. Sniff.
The word trope refers to a figure of speech or a unifying theme or subject. Tropes are tools that have been used for years to do things like, oh…define genres. In the mystery genre, the amateur detective himself is literally a trope. Within romance? A love triangle is a trope.
The difference between a hack and a talent lies in how they handle tropes. Are they used to say something true from a deep place of authenticity? Or do they mimic others to peddle a fad? To game the system, attempting to reap money and fame without effort?
The harsh truth is, when familiar tropes are missing or more obscure tropes are presented, it can lead readers to reject a story outright. Readers have expectations. If you fail to meet those expectations, you will lose them. Brandon Sanderson calls it the “promise.”
“Human beings are natural pattern seekers and story tellers. We use stories to convey truths, examine ideas, speculate on the future and discuss consequences. To do this, we must have a basis for our discussion, a new language to show us what we are looking at today. So our storytellers use tropes to let us know what things about reality we should put aside and what parts of fiction we should take up. ..it’s impossible to write something completely without tropes. So stop trying.” – Tropes, the Secret to Selling Books, Colleen Collins
Steven Pressfield, a man who arguably has instructed more gifted writers than anyone other than Robert McKee, flat says if your story doesn’t contain a hero quest, it won’t sell. lt will not be successful. He discusses why in-depth and l highly recommend you read his books to learn more.
The beautiful thing about tropes? You can stand them on their heads, make them do tricks and surprise people. A good writer sees something new in old themes and brings that newness forth like a sunrise. lf they read past the “cliché,” the snobby reader can learn this.
l think even God loves tropes. Every day the sun sets but l have yet to see a passé sunset, one that was unoriginal. Repetition isn’t a sign of weakness. it’s a sign of strength. Does one think daisies and roses are tired, because a mass of them bloom in the garden? Does it require greater or weaker creativity to create variations on the same theme? ls there, in fact, anything new under the sun?*
One of the most celebrated ad campaigns of all time is the Absolut Vodka print campaign. By using the trope of the bottle shape, Absolut developed a continuity within their campaign visually. lt made them the leader in their industry.
All this, but l have actually read reviews where the reviewer decided it was helpful to say a story was full of tropes and therefore not worth reading.
Books can serve as Rorschach tests. When you accuse a writer of this form of cliché, you’re attacking their character. Perhaps the fault lies not in the author but in the reader. Anyone who states such a thing displays a vast canyon of ignorance.
What folks who label your story as cliché are doing, many times, is committing the exact crime they prosecute. They are going back to talking points that don’t require explanation or energy. lt’s a kneejerk response to avoid thinking. lf one presses, one might find there’s no substance to such. They’re accusing you of being void of original thought. Of laziness, of being a thinly disguised clone.
Okay. So make ’em prove it.
Don’t let them get away with no effort. lf they want to stick you with such a label, force them to give specific examples and whys.
For instance, say you have a crime series with a mastermind, a thief, a computer whiz, a grifter, and some muscle as your ensemble. They solve the case.
Am l referencing A-Team or Leverage?
Were ether of those properties successful? Entertaining?
Snively Skunk reviewer might comment, finger pointing and screaming “Trope! Trope!”
What of it?
How did l use a design pattern laid down by other writers in a manner that was unoriginal?
Use that question. Because if they’re just objecting to the pattern, they’re wrong. To say you do not like something is very different than calling it cliche.
When you call something cliche you are demanding that others NOT use the device or trope and calling for its abolishment.
You might also point out the duplicate plot lines of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair. Ask which one was the hack, Bronte or Thackeray?
Make them answer. Accept nothing less than a composition, replete with specifics. if they can do that, congratulations. They get a cookie and possibly get to keep their Thinking Human membership card. lf they can’t? They have done nothing more than confirm that yes, you did use the toolset that comes with your genre. They’ve also identified themselves as hacks. Vapid, thoughtless, lazy hacks who must be disdained because if we give such respect, they multiply. lf censured, they might see their error and repent.
One can only hope.
Now getting back to the word cliché.
Cliché’s are specific phrases that have been repeated so often they are commonplace.
1. Avoid it like the plague
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Take the tiger by the tail
4. Low hanging fruit
5. If only walls could talk
6. The pot calling the kettle black
7. Think outside the box
8. Thick as thieves
9. But at the end of the day
10. Plenty of fish in the sea
11. Every dog has its day
12. Like a kid in a candy store
Phrases like these were at one time unknown. Now, everyone has heard them. A program like Grammarly or ProWritersAid can help you catch them if you slip and use one in your work. These are actual clichés.
Again, make the reviewer point out where such are specifically used.
Unthinkers will use the word cliché and trope to get across the idea of overdone, but they apply that concept with all the grace and precision of an AK-47, a bit too liberally. These parrots discourage and humiliate others, yet they haven’t actually thought through what they are saying. They just need to find something negative, then use it to diminish others. They’re invalidating and yes, cruel, simply so that they don’t have to express connected lines of reasoning. This specific criticism is vague and handy.
My wager is that most of them don’t actually read. They don’t understand.
Derision and critique are not the same thing.
So you guys let me know when love stories, alternate universes, sassy heroines or dragons become overdone. We’ll just get rid of the genres they define. Till then, give the proper response to reviews that use this unoriginal device to attack people and drag them down. Give them disdain. Their review is overdone.
Author’s note: This applies TRIPLE to anyone who rejects a fantasy book out of hand because it has a euro-medieval-type setting. That is the most small-minded bigotry thinly disguised in a literary veil as anything I have ever heard. (Try doing that if the setting is Africa. You’ll see what I mean.) Fantasy grew out of a certain area of Europe. No, not everyone who writes fantasy uses it as a setting, but those who do are NOT doing anything wrong.
Shame on you.
*G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
3 thoughts on “That’s So Cliché”
I agree wholeheartedly. I’m working on a presentation to a writers’ festival in Dublin on owning your story. In other words, making the tropes sing and dance for your story. Thanks for this.
You’re very welcome!
What a great defence of tropes – Long live the trope, and fresh takes!