Writers will at some stage come across the feedback in their own writing, or perhaps in reviews that says: “avoid cliches” or “this was too trope driven”. But what does that advice mean?
And should writers always avoid tropes and cliches?
While the answer varies depending on who you ask, I’d like to take a moment to consider the role of genre in writing cliche or trope.
In particular, the romance genre.
One of the most successful genres.
Sure, the romance genre (and its readers) faces its fair share of dismissal and belittling, but it’s hard to argue with the facts. The romance genre is massive and one of the most commercially viable in the book industry.
If you look at the marketing of romance novels compared to many others, you’ll notice that it heavily relies on mentions of tropes and cliches to ensure that the story reaches the intended reader.
In fact, the romance genre is so deeply attached to its tropes and cliches that it is generally accepted that there are some things a romance must have. The main one is the following:
- Readers expect a happily ever after (HEA)— or at least a happily for now (HFN)
Bonus points if the following is included:
- A novel meet cute that sets the tone for your character’s ongoing dynamic.
Readers usually want to know what tropes are being included in a book pretty early on in a book. Whether it’s enemies to lovers, star-crossed lovers, childhood sweethearts or second-chance romance, readers crave the same types of stories.
That being said, they don’t want the exact same story.
Although the familiarity and comfort offered by romance is one of the draws to the genre for many readers, so too is the excitement and novelty of having a familiar trope executed in a new way.
Successful romances are aware of their reader’s expectations and actively try and subvert these through the progress of the story. Surprise and delight can be found when a story reads as though it is staying one step ahead of its readers.
If romance didn’t subvert and play with its own tropes readers would become disinterested and find another genre to read. But part of the draw is seeing how different authors interact with tried and true tropes and cliches to present a story that is engaging and tension-filled.
So is it good advice or bad advice?
As with any writing advice, it’s best to question and consider, but ultimately leave what isn’t helpful for you.
The blanket rule of “avoid cliche and tropes” isn’t always helpful, especially in some genres (such as romance) where they’re very much a part of your readers experience and informs their expectations.
Lumping tropes and cliche together is also unhelpful framing. While a trope could be considered a familiar story-building block, cliches are when that trope is handled in the same way as many before have. Cliches lack surprises or subversions of expectations, they’re just a repetition of something already well established.
The cliche is an overused story element or phrasing that offers nothing different and has no awareness of its predecessors.
An example of a cliche from many stories is the line: [she/he/they] let out a breath they didn’t know they were holding.
That line in recent years has appeared in so many stories to represent a moment of tension that it’s losing some of its original effectiveness. The prose is poorer because of it.
A trope is usually a lot looser and has more room for authors to do their own thing. We gave some examples before from the romance genre, but other genres may include things like: the eccentric detective, an unlikely alliance, and taking on the system. You can likely think of countless stories that include these elements, but each handles them in its own way which leads to higher reader satisfaction. They’re the building blocks many stories are built upon.
If your story does include tropes, it’s worth asking if the person providing you with this advice is really saying that their expectations were not subverted.
Have you handled your trope in a way that feels cliche? What elements can you adjust to introduce some surprises or unexpected changes for the reader? Brainstorm and workshop with fellow writers to consider some alternative solutions.
Readers don’t usually want to be able to see exactly how a story will play out. Being able to present the familiar in a way that feels fresh and exciting is a mark of good writing. This is something many authors in the romance genre excel at.
The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston
I’m a big fan of romances that blend genres and this book felt a bit gothic with its paranormal elements but ultimately left me with sweet cozy feelings. If you enjoy The Gilmore Girls this has small-town drama with equal parts melancholy and delightful moments.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
A fun premise and characters that made me care deeply about both of them (a tricky feat for many dual-POV romances). There’s a lot going on in the plot outside of the main character’s romance, so if the slow burn is your style, this one is gold.
Lore Olympus (graphic novel) by Rachel Smythe
A contemporary retelling of greek mythology, centring on the relationship between Hades and Persephone, stunningly illustrated. This series does have some content warnings for it, so read with care, but each volume is able to be devoured in an afternoon.