Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to Make Cliches Work for You

Yesterday I have a mild panic attack. I blame the pregnancy hormones. While drafting my query letter for The Heart's Remains, I had this horrible suspicion that the book sounded like one big clichefest. Exorcists. Demon summonings. Summoners. Family secrets. Not exactly untrodden ground here, especially in fantasy.

This of course was not true. I know that. I'm not saying I completely reinvented the wheel (that would be impossible, since the book is a loose retelling of Snow White), but I know my book isn't one big cliche. Sometimes when you boil an idea down to it's smallest parts it can feel like that, but as we know, a lot of what makes something fresh and new is the execution. 

I've talked about that before, so today I thought instead I would show you how to make a cliche in your genre work for you. I personally don't think there's anything wrong with a trope, so long as they are used sparingly, or you do something cool with them. After all, most ideas become a trope because there's something enduring about them. I think once you've thought through the cliche and used it to your advantage, it become a trope. You still need to use tropes sparingly, but not you're thinking about the elements of your idea, not just piling on a bunch of ideas that have all been done to death.

See this article here about tropes: Tropes Are Tools

And here is a good livejournal post about Trope vs. Cliche.
Let me also say that I don't usually get story ideas this way. Normally I have a vague idea for a story and where I want it to go before I start taking each piece apart. It gives me a better sense of the direction I want to take the reversal. But there's nothing saying you can't say, "Man. I love the 'Love at first sight' trope. Let's see what sort of story I can make of that!"

This requires a tiny bit of research. But it's the fun, don't let it suck you in, sort of research.

So here we go. I am going to use the trope "Chosen One" since a) It's a pretty common trope. It's considered a cliche in most stories nowadays, and b) I am developing a novel with a chosen one in it, so I've already done a lot of thinking on it. 

1. Scouting

Your first defense against a cliche is research. I like to use TV as a good starting place. They have a vast collection of tropes and things are cross referenced.

We simply type "Chosen One" into the search box and pull up a long entry. The entry itself is also riddle with links, so you might want to check a few of them out if you're confused. There's also a long list of examples from books, movies, TV, and even webcomics. I like to skim through the examples to give myself an idea of how the trope has been done before.

Here is another trick. Scroll down the entry and you see where the "Chosen One" trope is on the trope axis. You get a lot of similar tropes to look at. "Fate and Prophecy types", "Magical Girl Tropes", "Heroes", "Archetypal Characters", "Empowerment", and "Discredited Tropes" (which means it's been done to death, didn't age well, or people have come to hate this trope).

Since my story deals more with fate versus free will, I will look at the "Fate and Prophecy types" branch. But let's say you're trying to pay homage to a traditional fantasy story. You've got an idea that you're going to use classic archetypes and then parody the heck out of all of them. "Archetypal Characters" would probably be a better branch for you in that case. 

My search gives me all sorts of plays on the Chosen One trope:
*The Chosen Zero
*It Sucks to be the Chosen One
*The Unchosen One

Next, you attempt to list all the movies and books you've seen/read that used the Chosen One as a trope. Depending on the trope you're researching, you might even want to re-watch some of these to see how they did it.

In this example, Chosen One has been done so often it would be a great idea for you to brush up on how other works have used this trope. You're going to really want to shoot for something different here, especially if the Chosen One is your main character.

2. Processing

That's enough information for now, don't you think? You don't want to get too crazy with this. 

Now we sit down and use our brains. Think about why this element is popular enough to be a trope or cliche if done badly. How it is used? Why has it endured for so long? 

For the Chosen One, I already know why it's popular. (Mythologists speculate) it comes from ancient legends, when people were still telling tales around the campfire. Cultures needed a way to designate the hero from everyone else, so they said that destiny chose this person, or this chosen one is the son of a god. 

This is also why it's almost a cliche. Because it's been done before we even invented books. Also, it's no longer a cultural necessity for us to use destiny/the gods to tell people who the hero is. We have other ways of designating the hero, and sometimes we'd rather the hero to be a guy just like us (hence the Everyman trope). 

Take your list and ask yourself the following:

*What do we expect from this trope?
*What is ordinary about how I want to use this trope?
*What is extraordinary about how I want to use this trope?

You don't have to get this all in one go. I often have one place in my brainstorming document for this, and I often add to it as I think about the idea. I also place my notes underneath the trope in question, so it looks little thought trees. :D

Here's an example:

*What do we expect from this trope? 

*We’d expect the Chosen one to fulfill their prophecy right away and always be on the side of the good guys.
            But in Star Wars, Darth Vader did both. He subverted the prophecy because he helped kill the Jedi, and then later on with the help of Luke, he kills the Emperor and fulfills the original prophecy of getting rid of the Sith Lords.

*We’d expect the Chosen One to not have a Chooser, for it just to be a nebulous “fate” thing. A prophecy, something they can’t confront.
            What if instead there was a chooser? Or the Chosen One themselves was the Chooser of the fate. Valkyries, Fates, the Morrigan, Norns.

So underneath I often put what I am going to do, if anything, to address the audiences expectations of the trope. You don't have to address every single expectation. Some of those expectations are going to be fulfilled, and that's okay. 

The really cool thing is thinking about each expectation often gives me neat ideas. I think the Darth Vader both fulfilling and subverting the prophecy is AWESOME. That makes me happy. I also now have cool ideas for norns and fates and valkyries. Also good stuff. 

The important thing to remember is to not drive yourself crazy with thinking you're writing a terrible book riddled with cliches. Some tropes you use are just going to be there, no matter what. If the good guys win, congratulations, that's a trope. If the guy gets the girl, also a trope. 

Tropes are simply what we expect from a story with a certain set up. You can have your fun though, if you think about which elements you want to subvert and twist by trying to figure how you can do things differently. 

It's also important to note that context is king. If you're writing a medieval fantasy novel set in pseudo-Europe and there's an ancient prophecy where a farm boy turns out to be the Chosen one and picks up a sword to defeat the Dark Lord, then your Chosen One trope is going to feel A LOT like a cliche. 

But, if you do like J.K. Rowling did, and instead set her Chosen One to a magical wizard school (also a trope) where he had to learn the ropes and had to stop Voldemort from taking over the muggle and magical world, it feels less like a cliche. Rowling did enough interesting worldbuilding and had enough clever new twists that her Chosen One didn't feel like the same old same old. Especially when she introduced the concept that Voldemort MADE Harry the Chosen One by killing his parents. How it could have been Neville instead. 

So. Does anyone have any other thoughts to add? Anyone want to see me pick apart another trope?


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