Tropes and Clichés – How To Keep Your Writing FRESH

by Cary Christopher & Lisanne Harrington

The OC Writer’s Blog theme for the month of April is “Fresh”, so what better time to discuss clichés? Nothing will kill a fresh piece of fiction faster.

What is a Cliché?

Put simply, they’re phrases you’ve heard a million times. That sentence is, in itself, a cliché.

Clichés are everywhere. You hear them in conversations every day and because they’re around us 24/7, sometimes it’s easy to find yourself using them when you’re writing fiction. This is especially true if the genre you write in is prone to formula—like horror.

Now, before we go further, we should point out that a cliché is not the same thing as a trope; however a trope can sometimes include clichés. Confusing, right?

Then, What is a Trope?

A trope is defined as a “commonly recurring literary or rhetorical device, motif or cliché in a creative work”. A classic horror example would be a haunted house story. People move into an old house. They soon begin to witness strange happenings. Perhaps one member of the family becomes more sensitive to it than others and becomes a conduit for the spirits. Before long, the house (or the spirits within it) is actively trying to kill the new tenants. The group either faces the spirits in an attempt to exorcise the house or they flee from the house, never to return.

In that plot synopsis, you have multiple tropes within a larger trope. The overall trope is the arc of the haunted house story itself. Within it, you have things like the person being a conduit to the spirits and the house becoming more actively violent over time. Those are also tropes.

Now, you may think that as an author, you should stay away from those tropes, but in fact there are many different ways to tell that exact same story. Sure, the structure is overly familiar to all of us, but how we dress it up makes all the difference. For instance, here’s a list of books and short stories that have all dealt with this same overall trope.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

The Shining – Stephen King

“The Book of Blood” (short story) – Clive Barker

The Amityville Horror – Jay Anson

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Every one of these is about a haunted house and even though they hang on the central premise we’ve described above, each of them will still put chills up your spine. They’re awesome examples of someone taking the same old thing and pushing it in a slightly different direction.

Keep it Fresh for Greater Impact

A cliché is more specific. Let’s say we’re writing that haunted house story and your character, Angela, has just entered a room where she has heard a mysterious noise. Upon entering, she feels the temperature in the room drop. How will you describe the feeling?

The easy way out is to write something like “Suddenly, Angela was as cold as ice.” That’s a cliché. While it may be accurate, it’s been used so many times that it has no impact on a reader. (Except maybe to turn them off…) You have to make your prose pop if you want to keep readers engaged.

Instead, you could write “Angela felt the air change, like fingers of cold crawling across her skin.” Now you’ve not only described the temperature change, but you’ve also added some great descriptive words like crawling fingers that amp up the creepy factor.

Beware the Hidden Traps

It is critical to be aware of clichés in all types of writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. We can all agree on that. It is also important to know the tropes of the genre you write in. We’ve already mentioned the haunted house trope. But horror is so much more than ghosts and haunted houses. There’s psychological horror, gothic, slasher, paranoia, failed experiment, village mob, priest who lost his faith, playing with dark forces, mom (or dad/sibling/friend) isn’t mom anymore, and flat out monsters like zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. Quite a list, right?

Every genre has a similarly long list.

So how do you write something fresh? Start by reading everything you can in your genre, for only then will you know what not to write. When you know that, you can avoid the pitfalls of stereotypical characters and over-used tropes. Which will make your writing FRESH.

And isn’t that the whole point?


Cary Christopher, Author

Cary Christopher was born and raised in Florida and Georgia but has called Southern California home now for almost 20 years. He’s written extensively about music, movies and pop culture online and for various publications around SoCal. Now he primarily writes for his blog (www.carychristopher.com). His new novel The Wash is available on Amazon.

Link to my Amazon Authors Page:https://www.amazon.com/Cary-Christoper


Lisanne Harrington

After sixteen years as a paralegal, I staged a coup and left the straight-laced corporate world behind forever. I now pander to my muse, a sarcastic little so-and-so who delights in getting the voices in my head to either all speak at once in a cacophony of noise or to remain completely silent. Only copious amounts of Diet Cherry Dr. Peppers and hamburgers will ensure their complicity in filling my head with stories of serial killers, werewolves, and the things that live under your bed.

I live in SoCal, in the small town I fashioned Moonspell’s Wolf Creek after, with my beloved husband and persistently rowdy, always-has-to-have-the-last-word Miniature Pinscher, Fiona.


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3 thoughts on “Tropes and Clichés – How To Keep Your Writing FRESH

  1. Excellent points! I also think that stepping outside of one’s own genre of short story or novel writing, for example, and into the poetry sphere sometimes results in a transfer of more colorful language to a person’s writing and a stimulates a surge of creativity in general.

    I happened to be reading Bill Meissner’s new book, “The Mapmakers’ Dream” just last week. Meissner is nothing if not a master of metaphor and creative figures of speech. Phrases like “he thinks he hears the stars fading,” and “those tightrope lines tracing her forehead” lace his poems. After reading a few of his poems, you can bet that when I went back to my novel and noticed that “her heart leapt”, I changed that phrase in a “quick hurry”!

  2. Several times I have vowed to read more poetry before writing, since my protagonist is a seanachie and should be speaking in a lyrical, rhythmic manner. But I forget, and some of my critique group pointed out that his Irish manner of speaking was somehow a stereotype — a cliche, and distracting. Was reading some Irish poetry tonight and realized how I had fallen into that cliche. His speech needs to be more unique, more metaphors, less reliant on syntax. I felt I was good at avoiding cliches, but hadn’t recognized that a cliche could be more than an often used phrase (the words), but also phrasing itself. Thank you, Billie, for pointing to the value of poetry to (ahem) “grease the wheels” of the author’s imagination, and thank you Carrie and Lisanne for pointing out the difference between a cliche and a trope.

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