Did squirm and stare at his trusty laptop;
All flimsy and miserable were his thoughts,
As he struggled to generate something startlingly original
(Not to mention reach his self-imposed word count for the day -
Dude, what had he been thinking?)
"Beware the Jabbertrope, my son
The clichés that bite, the stereotypes that catch!
Beware the Triteness bird, and shun
The frumious Banalitysnatch!"
-with sincere apologies to Lewis Carroll
I hear the lament constantly, from writers and non-writers --- yes, Virginia, there really is such a group; in fact, the funny thing is, it actually includes quite a few people who fancy themselves writers but aren’t, based on objective observations concerning the lack of literacy skills on their social media accounts. (Ooh, look: aggressive snark manages to rear its ugly head in my introductory sentence. Aren’t I clever.) The lament? Why, as you should be able to discern from my pathetic parody of Jabberwocky, it concerns tropes and clichés (T&C). So… several thoughts about them in today’s epistle. Written for your entertainment and edification in conversational list form --- just like Rabbit’s Plot to Kidnap Kanga, he added helpfully.
First: they’re like cockroaches: widespread and almost impossible to kill, he says, shaking his head despondently. I’ve especially noticed this lately on many Netflix/Crave/Bravo/Amazon Prime/Disney+ shows (and so on… the list seems virtually endless), where my wife and I occasionally make a kind of amusing game out of guessing the next line of dialogue or plot point, then turning to each other triumphantly when (not if) we’re right, exclaiming, “See? I could write for this show!”
To be fair, it’s not only TV --- for example, let’s briefly touch on three epically successful modern franchises which should remain nameless (one filmic from the get-go, two originally written before becoming monstrous film sensations which demonstrated annoyingly varying degrees of faithfulness to their source material): young, male, plucky protagonist (PP) who’s nobody’s idea of a hero (Frodo/Luke/Harry), needs to kill cosmically powerful villain (Sauron/Emperor/Voldemort) bent on killing him because of what he is (Ringbearer/Chosen One/Boy Who Lived). PP, surprisingly willing to accept the booby prize AKA quest, is aided along the torturous way by an ancient, crusty male mentor with magical powers (Gandalf/Obi-wan/Dumbledore) who ultimately gets offed --- an event which, strangely, doesn’t seem to possess the ultimate finality one might be forgiven for assuming it would. PP is hindered but eventually saved by a loathsome quasi-villain who actually turns out not to be (Smeagol/Vader/Snape). Also along the way, PP is accompanied by various sidekicks played for either earnest loyalty and smarts (Aragorn/Leia/Hermione) or silly, buffoonish comic-relief potential (Pippin --- in the films, it’s Gimli/C-3PO/Ron).
Second: but why are they everywhere? you query plaintively. Well, here’s the thing, boys and girls: tropes and clichés exist because human behaviours are chock FULL of them. We’re essentially walking clichés, folks. Human behaviours are depressingly repetitive and (mostly) depressingly predictable, because we do the same kind of things over and over. And have done for the last… oh, five thousand years or so of recorded history. Give or take. In addition, we rationalize those behaviours. My gosh, do we ever; humans are past masters at the art of rationalization. (Then we pretend we’re not rationalizing. Oy. Oh, the humanity.)
Third: however… is this a bad thing? he asks rhetorically, in his best expository teacher-voice. And the answer is… unsurprisingly, no, not necessarily. Those three franchises I just trashed are beloved by millions. (One of the franchises I actually like a lot --- the other two are… okay. No, I’ll let you guess which is my literary daddy. Besides, if you’re a regular here, you should already know.) Another thing about T&C is they appear in all types of story-telling because… they work. They are us. We recognize ourselves and our life situations and stories in them. We have met the enemy, and he is us. Sad, kinda pathetic at times, but true. Yep. Truth often hurts. And it may set you free, as a certain book claimed, but it will frequently piss you off in the process.
Fourth: hmm, well, can we avoid them, then, at least a little? you whisper hopefully. Ay, there’s the rub, as Will said. Well, I have an answer, and the good news is I think we can, at least somewhat. It’s a more difficult thing to accomplish in this modern day and age, when the vast majority of us are pretty jaded and world-weary, having read, watched, and heard all kinds of situations in different genres, but… still possible, I think. As a writer, you help to avoid T&C by asking yourself this question and its all-important follow-on:
-what does the reader expect will happen next?
-so, what do we give ‘em instead?
Returning momentarily to one of the franchises, for example: how would things have been different if Gandalf had been female? And admittedly, all three make the attempt --- some more successfully than others --- to ask the ‘instead’ question by providing at least one pithy revelation emerging from the situation-that-turns-out-to-be-not-what-we-thought-it-would-be (“I am no man”/ “I am your father”/ “Yer a wizard, Harry”). (Riddles are always good for that, because they’re usually written so as to be ambiguous and capable of various interpretations: “not by the hand of man will he fall.” And who among us wasn’t initially blown away by Vader’s declaration of paternity? Whoa, dude. Granted, they were simpler times. The Harry one… well, not so much.)
Have I used this pair ‘o questions in my own writing? Why, yes, constant reader, as a matter of fact, I have. To good success, too, in my humble opinion. I’m not saying it’s a silver bullet, one-size-fits-all solution, panacea, or any number of other hoary old clichés I could employ. I’m not even saying you’ll be successful every time using my magic elixir. After all, as I’ve said, we are walking clichés. But it is something you can do to avoid the dreaded Jabbertrope. At the very least, it will force you to consider other, possibly fresher, avenues to explore… to take the path less travelled by, as Bob said.
And that might make all the difference for you, too.