Clichés, Tropes, and Borrowing Key Signatures

I have the weekly opportunity to argue debate and defend various writing strategies with friends, things we find out in the wild, things we incorporate into our own writing or distance ourselves from.  One of my favorite “craft of writing” metaphors comes from the Writing Excuses podcast, wherein the suggestion is made that while anyone can cook, only the chef is skilled enough from potentially years of experience to know what every ingredient does and why.  Swapping things in and out becomes a matter of expertise instead of unguided speculation.

When I introduced this concept to my sparing debate partner, and before I could fully explain the metaphor, they dismissed the idea, claiming that borrowing from other genres or story archetypes only nets the writer “the clichés” of those genres or story types.

In our shared category of speculative fiction, I think this is a very shallow analysis of what it means to borrow.  Tropes and plot devices only become clichés when they are poorly implemented or too transparent, a green bit of garnish on a plate without real understanding of a purpose.

It’s my fear that my nemesis colleague shies so far away from including anything that has been seen before that their work borders on being unrelatable, like a Lego brick house built only out of bricks that don’t normally show up in Lego brick houses.  A curious experiment to be sure, and perhaps a spectacle, but not one that sports a broad enough appeal to properly entertain those in the market for a house.

In a debate like this, the contender interlocutor sitting across from me should understand that anything done well of course deserves to be judged on its own merits.  Just take care not to borrow badly, blend the borrowed concepts crudely, then brush all away in disgust because of the uninspired feedback earned.  Deeply root into the story anything borrowed.  Tie it in from multiple places—environment, plot, worldbuilding, character—so that the element works so naturally that it seems a mistake to remove it rather than to keep it.

It’s okay to write a song using the key of an existing song.  It’s okay to use a note on the keyboard someone else has used.  Your work isn’t being judged for the notes that appear, but the order you put them in and how well you can build up to the combination of notes that makes your arrangement distinct in the minds of those listening.  You can even choose the same climactic note as someone else, just take us there in a heartfelt, convincing way, and we’ll be there with you.

One thought on “Clichés, Tropes, and Borrowing Key Signatures

  1. Tom

    In western music, there are only seven notes. But there are a billion potential patterns. The notes are ubiquitous, because they are building blocks. I also, like most people, do all my writing with just 26 letters. So what constitutes derivation is a fuzzy concept. The better question is where is the line one should not cross over.

    I won’t go so far as to say that cliches are building blocks (heaven forbid). But cliches become cliches because they are (or once were) good ideas. At least until they are predictable and not fresh anymore, and they are especially abhorrent if this indicates that the author has no creative inspiration other than finding a new way to be derivative. We repeat good, successful strategy that works and then becomes ubiquitous, and we jettison poor, unworkable strategy (which then never earns the right to become ubiquitous, or cliched).

    But as you say, it’s all in the execution. I might be dismayed when I open a book and it’s just one more Star Wars bar scene, or another cheesy ‘everybody’s on the run from imminent danger’ scene. Ho hum, right? But if a writer executes, if they do that well, I’m still all in, cliche or no cliche. A good writer has the power to move that line, which can buy a lot of license with a reader, even one tired of cliches.

    Just, please, no more werewolves or aliens or vampires. At least for a while. I beg of you.


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