Tag Archives: Ask the editor

Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche?

Dear Alex,
I’m writing a young adult fantasy novel. I’ve researched the market, so I know what other authors are writing and I know what sells. My question is this: must I write the one thousandth novel about a “chosen one” who saves the world? It seems like such a cliché. On the other hand, if this is a trope that readers expect, what’s the harm in using it? Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between a trope and cliche, so I guess that’s my real question: trope, cliché, what’s the difference?
–Hashi

Hi Hashi,

A trope is an ingredient. Let’s say your son has asked for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. He wants bread, cheese, and butter, toasted up medium well. Think of those ingredients as tropes. They are essential to make that particular kind of food. In romance, you’ve got the meet-cute, the first kiss, the happily ever after. In mystery, you have the dead body, the misfit detective, and the midpoint plot twist. Other tropes, like the chosen one or the fired cop solving the crime anyway or the marriage of convenience are perfectly fine. They are the bread and butter and cheese of our books. You literally can’t make a book without them, just like you can’t make a sandwich without bread.

A cliché is like an ingredient that’s been sitting out on the counter too long. So long, in fact, that it’s gone bad. The bread is moldy and the butter is rancid. It might have been fine once, but now it’s spoiled. If you make a grilled cheese sandwich with moldy bread, it will still be a grilled cheese sandwich, but your kid won’t want to eat it.

Clichés are things that have been done to death, such as the villain’s monologue or the literal saving of a cat. These have been done so many times, in fact, that they are ripe for parody. So when we’re watching The Incredibles and Buddy says “You caught me monologuing,” we laugh because it’s such a cliché that it’s funny.

In short, tropes are good. They are the healthy ingredients that make up our stories. Readers want them and love them. Clichés are tropes that have been on the shelf so long that they’ve gone bad. They are not healthy or good for readers, or for you.

And the terrible part is, we are never sure when a trope becomes a cliché. Here’s my thought. If you’re using a trope and still getting a good story out of it, something that feels like a fresh take (using fresh ingredients) then you’re absolutely fine. You don’t have to subvert the trope or turn it on its head, you just have to make sure you’re bringing something fun and new to the table. Maybe you’re writing the cynical detective story, but instead of a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, he’s twenty-two. Why such cynicism in one so young? That’s your story.

The other way to make a trope work for you is to reach deep within yourself to bring the most authentic, heartfelt version of that story into the world. Think of it as artisanal grilled cheese on sourdough bread with local farm cheddar and hand-churned butter. So to take our cynical detective story, perhaps he fits the stereotype to a T. He’s sixty years old, lives alone, trusts no one, keeps a bottle of Scotch in his file cabinet and a loaded pistol in his pocket, and solves crimes between benders. How did your detective get this way? What heartbreaking part of his backstory could you explore? (By the way, if you want to see this done well, read the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block. Tropes galore. Awesome books.)

You’ve got to go deep if you’re taking this approach to fiction, though, and it has to be one hundred percent sincere. You have to write that trope with all the honesty and emotion you have, because the moment you wink at the audience, you’re done for.

However, where things go badly is when you’re using a trope in a lazy way, just coloring in an outline that someone else has made, with nothing new and no sincerity. If you “write to market” in this shallow way, you’re using rancid ingredients and you’re going to end up writing a cliché.

So go ahead and use those tropes! They are the vital ingredients your story needs. Just be sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find and you’re treating them with respect. And then, cook them up and serve them to a happy audience.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?

Dear Alex,
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
–Daniel

Hi Daniel,

I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.

I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.

Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.

Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.

But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.

The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.

You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How Can I Make my Heroine Three-Dimensional?

Dear Alex,
My critique group says that my heroine is a “Mary Sue.” She’s too perfect and therefore unbelievable. I tried giving her some flaws in my next draft, but now my critique group doesn’t like her at all. How do I balance it out so my heroine is neither a goody two-shoes nor an unlikable witch?
–Cindy

Hi Cindy,

I sympathize. Making a character three-dimensional is tough.

Nobody wants to read about someone who never makes a mistake. In fact, the entire point of a novel is to watch a heroine grow and change. She can’t do that if she’s already perfect. And if all the other characters in the novel already love her, there will be no conflict.

Most writers realize that their heroine needs some flaws, but they aren’t sure what kind of flaws to give her, so they choose things at random. Suddenly, their heroine is clumsy, or short-tempered, or her house is always a wreck, or she’s late for everything. Any flaw that sounds interesting or fun gets thrown into the book.

The problem with this? Readers will feel the randomness. Your character won’t seem well-rounded. She’ll seem scattered, and therefore, readers won’t believe in her.

Instead, look at your heroine’s strengths. What are they? Make a list on paper. Now turn them upside down. What are the downsides of those wonderful positive qualities you gave your heroine? Is she extremely independent? That probably also means she isn’t good at asking for help when she needs it. Does she see the best in everyone? That can also mean she’s naive, and lets people take advantage of her. Is she brainy? In what ways can you make her “too smart for her own good” as she only sees the high-minded, logical answer to a problem, never the down-to-earth practical one? Is your heroine very athletic, winning every race or match? In what ways is her competitive nature going to be a problem for her?

You can also flip this. If you’re having trouble thinking of the downsides of your heroine’s strengths, you can also look at the upside of her flaws. Perhaps you have a character who is very cynical, always looking for hidden motives or waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s the person who will spot danger first, long before the other characters see it.

You can give your heroine any strengths. You can give her any flaws. But it’s crucial that you make one the mirror image of the other. If you want to make a well-rounded character whom readers will believe in, you need to make these positive and negative qualities mirror one another. Her good traits are her bad traits, and vice-versa.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.