Trope or Cliché

Courtesy of

Who here knows what a trope is?

How about a cliché?

How about the difference between the two?

Did the last question leave you stumpped? Me too! So I went on a digital spelunking quest into the unknown. I also looked into other vintage sources like a dictonary or two, and do you want to know what I found out? Well… No one really knows, it’s kind of vague.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is a trope? How do you pronounce it [troup]? Heck, I’ve been pronouncing it [troupy] because that’s how I learned it, the thing is, outside of literature university courses, you won’t hear many people speak it out loud, and if they do… case in point. It’s a little like genre, I honestly thought it was pronounced [genier] when I read it in articles until I realized genre was what I’d heard fancy people refer to as belonging to a style, or category = [jánre]
  2. What is a cliché?
  3. Which one is bigger? I ask this because it seems like cliché fits into the great encompassing shadow of the mighty trope. Trope, such a grand word, in the same category as genre, canon and the like. But, cliché just sounds right out bad.

My trusty hardcopy of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory says:

cliché: (F ‘stereotype plate’) A trite, over-used expression which is lifeless.

F stands for French, ok, so what does it say about trope? Here is where I ran into trouble, my trusty Penguin (above) said:

trope: (Gk ‘turn’) In general it still denotes any rhetorical or figurative device, but… during the Middle Ages… it came to be applied to a verbal amplification of the liturgical text.

Gk stands for Greek, uhm, not exactly what I expected. I made a mistake, or I’ve been hearing the term incorrectly. Sniff.

I looked further, this time online, and it turns out that torpe does mean what I had read in The Penguin Dictionary, but there is a snag. It has recently (or recently enough) been included in wikipedia, where it also means cliché:

A literary trope is the use of figurative language – via word, phrase, or even an image – for artistic effect[1] such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices,[2] motifs or clichés in creative works.[3][4]

So, I was right, trope has somethin to do with cliché, yay! And then? That’s where it ends qua dictionary entries. Wikipaedia is as close to a ‘real’ (and by real I mean authoritative) definition I could get.

Out of the world of books and authority, and into the trusted world of blogs, comments and random internet searches and fabulous forums (fora?). Here we get a lot of information, and starting at the top of my goolge bubble is:

Adam Heine, who tells us, in the battle of Tropes vs. Clichés, tropes are a reocurring pattern in literature, they are not good or bad because “tropes are what make stories run”. Clichés, however, “are subjective”, and he continues:

What’s old and tired to you may be brand new to someone else, or it might be someone’s favorite trope-they don’t care HOW much it’s been done; they love it every time.

I really like this definition because the last part of the sentence is so true, and it is true for everyone because we all like repetition, it is part of pattern recognition, and as humans, we are hardwired for pattern recognition. But again, where does trope start and cliché end? Even Adam seems a little murky on the subject. Though he does give a few pointers as to how not to fall into clichés, in the above mentioned blogpost.

Then I ran into this Reddit pearl posted by BillHadCheese,

I look at it like this:

A trope is an idea (a theme, a metaphor, an analogy, or even methodology) that is both discernible and categorical. The Chosen One. The Artefact of Power. The Damsel in Distress. The Knight in Shining Armor.

A cliche is either a trope that has become overused (perhaps misused), or a specific, overused metaphor. One would think The Chosen One would be a tired or cliché trope, but we manage to keep getting good stories using it. A phrase like “His teeth were white as pearls” is a straight-up cliché.

Again, more opinion than actual definitions (if you wanted definitions, you could just look them up), but tropes are the meta parts of content and clichés are those we don’t really want to see anymore.

In that feed someone goes on to question Mr. BillHadcheese’s arguement by asking if he means archetype instead of trope and to which he answers that an archetype can be a trope and… well, do you get the idea now?

But one thing most bloggers, commenters and general internet and literary persons can agree on is that clichés are not a good thing. Take a general dictionary search, for instance:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.


A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as:

A word or expression used in a figurative sense.


A common or overused theme or device.

As we can see, it’s not that easy even for dictionaries to decide what should be what. And both seem to have a negative connotation.

Perhaps in the end it is necesary to let go of literary terms and just go with the flow. But next time someone says your writing, or anyone else’s writing is clichéd, think about the definition (same thing applies for trope, of course).

All’s well that ends well 🙂