Are you worried you may be using elements in your novel that other people will see as all-too-common, or worse, cliché? Knowing how original your ideas are is important because a book full of overused or formulaic plot lines can kill off your readership. Yet, sometimes it’s hard to know if your gems are actually rocks.
Moreover, what if your elements aren’t necessarily cliché, but are familiar tropes? Is that just as bad? What’s the difference anyway? We’ll start there because it’s good to know what each term means as one is more perilous than the other.
What is a cliché?
A cliché is a very specific set of details that have been done over and over before. They’re expected, obvious, predictable, and worn-out. Those are things to be avoided in an industry where our job is to impress.
Example: A man goes back in time to save the woman he loves, only to learn he cannot outsmart death.
How many times has this been done? Waaaaaay too many. And there really isn’t a way to dress this up into something new without changing the storyline altogether. A cliché idea is limited and can’t endure much change without becoming a new idea altogether.
What is a trope?
A trope is any element theme or plot device that reoccurrs across many works. It’s an idea that is popular and foundational, but is still open-ended enough that we can make it into our own thing.
Example: A time traveler.
Time travelers abound in sci-fi and fantasy literature because that’s a storyline we can have fun with. There are so many different ideas that can spin off the simple basis of a time traveling character.
That’s what sets a trope apart from a cliché—that it is broad and ready for our individual ideas to color it.
What is an archetype?
There’s a lot of cross-over between a trope and an archetype. An archetype is the role a character plays in the story. The supportive best friend, the guiding mentor, or the defiant woman are all archetypes that could play a part in the story we’re building here. But for our main character…
Example: A man in love.
His archetypal role is the man in love. The fact that he’s a time traveler is something we pin on, as another layer to the story. We would continue to add inventive things to our story and characters, making it our own work–an exceptional work that stands on its own. It doesn’t become a cliché until we use that plot line that’s been used to death (that he tries to go up against death itself and fails).
It is okay to use archetypes. In fact, it might be impossible not to. Character archetypes reoccur over generations because they produce well-loved stories with valuable lessons.
You’ll notice these can be ordered by their specificity. The archetype is the broadest character base. So much so that it is almost entirely open to our creative devices. The trope is the middle road, where it’s been seen, it’s been done, but there is still a lot of wiggle room to make the story unique and fun. Then comes the cliché, which has very little room for artistry or experimentation.
How can you tell if your story is cliché?
So what about your story? How can you, a lone writer, know for sure you’re not offending this sacred boundary? Here are some tips.
- Read excessively. This is the best way, hands down. If you read extensively within your genre, you’ll get a feel for what’s been used a lot, what can stand a few refreshers, and what’s nearly original (I say “nearly” because I don’t believe there are any truly original ideas; all ideas are inspired by other ideas).
- Get an editor or coach who knows your genre. Being informed and up to date on tropes and trends in your genre is important. But if your book coach works generally in fiction, they may not be able to identify niche patterns. When a book coach specializes in your genre, they’re not only able to point these things out, but they can also help you make changes to the idea to make it look new.
- Keep in mind the word “stereotype.” A stereotype is an oversimplified conception, or an opinion that is conforming to a set image. What’s the stereotype for a mentor? That he’s old, has a big gray beard, and speaks slowly and with wisdom. That’s pretty darn close to being cliché. The way to defeat that is to make it new. Make it a kid instead, who isn’t wise at all, but grew up in your story’s world so he’s got the skills to guide the character through it. In fiction, clichés and stereotypes are often interchangeable. As you’re trying to determine if you’ve got clichés lurking in your story, consider whether or not your characters, settings, or plot are assumptions.
The key here is not to rid yourself of all ideas that have been used in the past. It is to update those ideas. Put your personal spin on things. People aren’t always looking for groundbreaking stories anyway. On the contrary, people often want their entertainment to be comforting with just enough excitement to keep them coming back for more. As I said earlier, there are no purely original ideas. Don’t feel like you need to set the next galaxy alight. You just need to write an interesting story.
One thing that will absolutely ensure your story has that edge, is to create an antagonist deserving of the limelight. See our post The Bad Guy: Writing to Challenge Your Hero for guidance.
If you’re looking for help with your manuscript, if you’re looking for the kind of help that has fresh eyes and a nose for sci-fi and fantasy, that’s exactly the kind of help that we provide. We are book coaches and we know our genre. Hit us up if you have questions.