Cliche vs. Trope in Writing: How They Differ, with Examples
One of the longest-lasting points of confusion in writing concerns a simple topic: cliches and tropes. From readers to professional writers, everyone seems to have a different idea of what these two words mean and how they work (or don’t work) in writing.
Fortunately, we’re here to provide the answers you need. We’re going to explore the definition of cliche vs. trope, examples of each one, and how to successfully integrate tropes into your writing. By the end, you’ll have all the answers you need to make your next story shine.
What is a cliche in writing?
A writing cliche involves using certain phrases, expressions, devices, or archetypes that have been used too often in too many different places. Even if the phrase or expression was once interesting and innovative, it’s now tired and played out.
For the most part, cliches really drag down the overall quality of your writing. That’s because your readers crave someone with a unique voice and vision, not something they’ve heard over and over. When you rely on cliches to craft a narrative, it means you’re spending more time trying to sound like everyone else and less time trying to sound like yourself!
Examples of cliches in writing
You don’t have to look far to encounter cliches in writing. For example, countless books and board rooms both include the phrase “think outside the box” – a cliche so tired that you probably groaned just reading it. Writers who describe a deceased character as being “dead as a doornail” are using an old cliche. And at some point, we’ve all described avoiding something “like the plague.” These are all cliches because they’re set phrases that have been used over and over across the years.
The fact that we’re all so familiar with these phrases is one of the main problems with cliches. When your individual lines aren’t original, it takes readers out of the story and makes the writing sound amateurish.
What is a trope in writing?
Tropes in writing usually refer to familiar character types, plot points, settings, and even writing styles that are instantly recognizable. That’s because tropes are deeply tied into particular genres. Selectively and tastefully using tropes in certain genres is a way of letting your readers know that you “speak the language” of a particular genre.
While some modern writers disparage tropes as being hackneyed, they’re generally much more respected as a writing convention than cliches are. That’s because a cliche involves copying a phrase of expression word-for-word rather than coming up with something new, while tropes allow creative writers an opportunity to put their own spin on something readers are likely to already recognize. When done right, tropes help a story seem both familiar and innovative to your readers.
Examples of tropes in writing
Many tropes in writing are instantly familiar. For example, the trope of “the big, beefy guy is always inhumanly strong” describes everything from the Goliath whom David fights in the Bible to the character of The Mountain from A Song of Ice and Fire. We’re also all familiar with the idea of lovers separated by social classes, as in The Great Gatsby, where the disparity between Daisy’s wealth and the poorer men who fall in love with her inform their actions and motivations.
Unlike cliches, tropes don’t immediately take a reader out of the story. Instead, they remind readers of previous stories and help establish expectations for how this new story is going to unfold.
What are the differences between cliches and tropes?
There are some surface-level similarities between cliches and tropes, but the two couldn’t be more different. On top of that, there is spirited debate in the writing community about how, say, a trope may be overused to the point that it becomes another shopworn cliche.
So to employ a handy cliche, it’s time to “get down to brass tacks.” Here are the primary differences between cliches and tropes:
1. Tropes are archetypal
Perhaps the best way to understand tropes is through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell was a scholar and literary professor who drew upon earlier work by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung to develop a series of literary archetypes into which readers can categorize multiple characters. He eventually created the idea of a “monomyth,” which is a way of saying that all mythic narratives are effectively new ways of telling the same old story. Hence the name The Hero With A Thousand Faces: according to Campbell’s theory, everyone from Homer’s Odysseus to Neo in the Matrix is effectively living out the same epic story. And understanding how this myth works, and the role of the archetypal tropes, can help make your own writing both stronger and more relatable.
For example, “the chosen one” is a powerful trope and archetype that identifies a seemingly-common character who is secretly destined for greatness. In popular literature, this is an archetype that applies to very different characters, like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings or the young wizard Harry Potter. These are characters that began as literary icons before becoming pop culture icons, though Joseph Campbell’s mainstream popularity began with something purely pop culture: Star Wars.
George Lucas credits Campbell’s theories with inspiring much of the mythmaking we see in the Star Wars trilogy. This is part of why Star Wars resonated so much with audiences : Luke Skywalker is a young boy who receives a magic sword, meets an older mentor, and storms a castle to save a princess. As much as Lucas was telling a unique science fiction story, he was also incorporating aspects of the King Arthur legend that most people are familiar with – a powerful trope.
In fact, Campbell was so influential to George Lucas that the filmmaker called Campbell “my Yoda.”
2. Tropes are necessary; cliches are not
One of the biggest differences between tropes and cliches is that in order to tell a great story, tropes are necessary; but cliches are never necessary, and always weaken your story.
The reason tropes are necessary is that they’re built into every single genre. Are you writing a western? Chances are that your story will be filled with trusty steeds, lone cowboys, and sheriffs holding out against chaos. That doesn’t mean you’re an unoriginal writer. Rather, these western tropes have become an indispensable part of the genre. And using a trope such as “the lone cowboy” doesn’t mean you can’t subvert our expectations and do something unexpected.
But imagine that you’re writing a western and include a character spouting lines like “that’ll be the day” and calling everyone “pilgrim.” All this will really do is make audiences think of John Wayne. And it’s tough to sell audiences on a brand new character while you’re using cliches to make us think of an older character. By ditching cliches altogether, you can do something new.
3. Tropes enhance characters; cliches do not
Do you want to know the quickest way that readers can identify hack writers? A hack thinks that characters are a collection of cliches.
Sure, there may be some wisdom in T.S. Eliot’s classic piece of advice “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” But even if you were completely comfortable with stealing someone else’s ideas, the goal of any crime is to get away with the deed.
By the time a cliche becomes a cliche, readers all over the world are familiar with it. So when you craft characters around cliches, your readers no longer see an “original” character. Instead, they see the crazy quiltwork of different characters you have effectively borrowed from.
Meanwhile, tropes function a bit like “secret sauce” in good stories. You can use tropes and still create characters that are complex and engaging. At the same time, the character’s tropes help him come across as an old friend to audiences rather than someone new and otherwise alien.
One fun literary example of cliches comes from Voltaire’s Candide. In that book, the character Professor Pangloss keeps spouting then-cliches about Leibniz and his theories of optimism. Voltaire keeps inflicting terrible on Pangloss and the characters around him, but the beleaguered professor keeps insisting that everything’s okay because they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
In that same book, the titular Candide is a great example of a character effectively built from tropes. Candide is the classic simple-minded character with a heart of gold. We cheer for his honesty and simplicity in the face of a deceitful and complex world, and we long to see him grow and change throughout his adventures.
Voltaire’s novel is effectively a master class on tropes vs. cliches. Because he frequently spouts cliches, readers rightfully see Professor Pangloss as a character to be criticized and mocked. But the character Candide is made of some of the same tropes that would later create Forrest Gump, yet each of these simple characters still comes across as fully-formed and distinct.
Examples of cliches vs. tropes
Let’s take a closer look at specific examples of tropes vs. cliches. By comparing these examples, you can better understand exactly how tropes and cliches differ from one another.
In a love story, one very familiar trope is “enemies to lovers.” This is when two characters who are combative or opposed slowly fall in love with each other. In literature, one of the most famous examples of this is Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. This trope has become so powerful that it’s now at the center of countless romance novels and movies.
A cliche in a love story might be including the phrase “love is blind.” The phrase originates in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and has been repeated in lesser stories for centuries. When you write your own “enemies to lovers” trope in a book, it’s possible for you to do it very differently than Jane Austen did in Pride and Prejudice. But when you just throw in a cliched phrase like “love is blind,” all it does is copy Shakespeare and make your own writing look like a bad rip-off.
Another trope that we touched on before is that of “the chosen one.” A very influential use of this trope comes from Lord of the Rings, a story in which hapless Frodo must embark on an adventure to save the world when he’d rather be at home relaxing. Destiny thrusts Frodo into great challenges, and readers engage with him because he’s a successfully-realized “everyman” trope.
And to bring it all together, J.R.R. Tolkien also helps us see the very specific differences between a cliche and a trope. That’s because he took a phrase from The Merchant of Venice and adapted it. Specifically, Tolkien took the line “All that glitters is not gold” and transformed it into part of a poem to describe the character Aragorn. Thus, we get Tolkien’s famous line “All that is gold does not glitter / Not all those who wander are lost.”
Tolkien took what would normally have been a cliched line, and changed the wording to create something completely new. Later writers, meanwhile, took Tolkien’s words and changed very little. One example of this is Lana Del Rey, who borrowed Tolkien’s phrase to create the song “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” –- but in doing so, failed to transform the phrase in any substantial way. Thus, Lana looks like she’s borrowing from a much better writer by directly using this cliche without adding anything new. Meanwhile, nobody accuses Tolkien of ripping off Shakespeare, because Tolkien innovated on the cliche Shakespeare invented.
When do you use a cliche vs. a trope in writing?
So, when should you use cliches and tropes in your writing? When it comes to cliches, the answer is simple: never do it! As one of my old English professors likes to put it, cliches are “shopworn,” like phrases that have been on the shelf too long. Unless you want your writing to look derivative and outdated, you should avoid cliches entirely.
The more interesting question is when you should use tropes. When it comes to characters, flesh out the character in your mind first. What are their motivations? What are their pain points, and what kind of morality do they subscribe to? Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll know which tropes may be appropriate.
For example, let’s return to the idea of tropes in Western fiction. The lone cowboy and the embattled sheriff are two very familiar tropes, but they belong to two very different types of characters. A lone cowboy, after all, is a wanderer driven by mysterious motivations (usually revenge). An embattled sheriff, meanwhile, is usually a pigheaded local driven almost entirely by his sense of justice. Specifically, he’s willing to die before he lets chaos and crime eat away at the law and order he helped create.
Tropes are also informative when it comes to shaping plot and conflict as well as characters. As soon as you decide to have a lone cowboy, for example, it necessitates giving him the right challenge, such as saving a town that has been taken over by a villainous criminal. And the use of the lone cowboy certainly invites the writer to emphasize his interior conflict. What is it that keeps such a figure wandering from town to town rather than settling down? And how do we view the inherent tragedy of a man who can save everyone else but cannot save himself from his own inner demons? As you can see, the simple decision to use a familiar literary trope can help give your story a structure, your characters a motivation, and your readers something they can understand and relate to.
Like we said before, tropes are the “secret sauce” to good writing. Don’t add too much to your story, and make sure the plot and characters are compelling on their own before you begin applying tropes. ## Can a trope be a cliche?
One question that writers struggle with is whether a trope can also become a cliche. The short answer is “yes.” How does this happen? While tropes are literary devices, there are times that they become so popular and so overused that their appearance can become a turn-off for readers.
In cinema, one of the best examples of this is the American Western. Westerns were the superhero movies of their time, enjoying just as much widespread popularity. Eventually, though, the cinematic landscape was filled with both Westerns, and other movies using Western tropes. And just like any other overused cliche, the sheer frequency of these tropes made audiences doubt the originality and innovation of the films and other media using these tropes.
The general public often conflates the terms “cliche” and “trope.” That’s why breathless internet articles will write about the “cliches” they hate in genres like science fiction. You may notice that 99 out of 100 times, these articles are actually complaining about tropes rather than cliches.
These complaints are still useful for your own writing, though. By the time we’re drowning in think pieces about how annoying certain tropes have gotten, it’s time to retire those tropes for a few years. And don’t bring those tropes back out unless you have something truly original to do with them!
When does a cliche become a trope?
When does a cliche become a trope? The literal answer is that it doesn’t.
Genuine cliches, as opposed to literary devices, character motivations, and plot contrivances, are phrases and expressions that get used (often out of context) in other works. Think of a modern female character muttering “wherefore art thou, Romeo?” That cliche will always be a cliche because it comes from a famous play, and any writing that utilizes it dilutes its own power by bringing Shakespeare into the mix.
Because cliches are by definition overused expressions and phrases, they can never ascend to the timeless level of tropes and archetypes. Cliches are always cliche.
3 tips for how to write tropes instead of cliches
Now you know how easy it is for your readers to confuse tropes and cliches. How, then, can you focus on writing tropes instead of cliches?
1. Use tropes intentionally
Making sure you’re using tropes intentionally is critical to effective writing. The thing about cliches is that they often sneak into your writing. That’s because as writers, we try to find the perfect phrasing, and often end up accidentally reaching for phrases we’ve heard and used a million times before. By using tropes intentionally and mindfully, you can experience the joy of using a familiar trope while also giving yourself the freedom to do something new and exciting with it.
2. Never stop researching your genre
If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, you should spend your spare time really soaking in great sci-fi novels, movies, and TV shows. This is helpful in a couple of significant ways. For one thing, understanding the genre better can help you to flesh out your own story in interesting ways. And for another thing, understanding the genre helps you mindfully apply tropes without turning them into cliches, especially once you add your own spin.
Not only can this provide inspiration for different tropes to use, but it lets you know how other great creators used these tropes. And it’s only by knowing what everyone else did that you can truly innovate.
3. Add your own spin
Finally, try to put your own spin on a trope before integrating it into your story. Start asking yourself what disappointed you about the tropes you’ve encountered before, and what you wished writers would have done differently. Just like that, you have inspiration for the different directions you can take with your own characters and story!
Navigating cliche vs. trope: how to take your storytelling to the next level
Now you know the important differences between cliches and tropes. And one cliche that 80s fans of GI Joe have been spouting for decades is that “knowing is half the battle.”
While that’s true, keep in mind that nobody gets to quit when the battle is only halfway over. You may now know the differences between cliches and tropes, but now it’s time to put that knowledge to use. Specifically, it’s time to cut those annoying cliches out of your story, while adding tropes that enhance your characters, plot, and setting.