There’s often confusion about the difference between a trope and a cliché, but in reality they’re two very different things. A trope can be described as a familiar idea or widely recognised concept, whereas the word ‘cliché’ refers specifically to a turn of phrase that has been severely overused, for example ‘As cold as ice’. However, to muddy the waters, some tropes can be so overused that they themselves become ‘clichéd’.
Examples of common tropes are:
The dispossessed king reclaiming his birthright
A last-ditch battle that snatches victory from defeat
The unwilling hero full of self doubt
The tropes listed above all feature in The Lord of the Rings, but these same themes can be found in countless other tales. These familiar ideas are the building blocks of many great stories and will doubtless be the foundation of many more. Let’s call these ‘good tropes’.
In contrast, examples of clichéd ideas (bad tropes) would be:
The hero who was the villain all along
The plain girl who’s revealed to be a ravishing beauty
The crazy conspiracy nut who turns out to be right
So what’s the difference? To put it simply, a good trope is evergreen — it can be reworked in endless ways. Take ‘the last-ditch battle’ example, this could be a real battle or any number of metaphorical battles such as a legal dispute, or even a person overcoming addiction. It’s a very loose framework that has endless permutations.
In contrast, a bad trope such as ‘the hero is the villain’ is a much narrower concept. It can also be used in countless stories, but in each case it’s always going to be fundamentally the same thing — our choice is always going to be binary: hero/villain, plain/attractive, crazy/sane. Because we’ve seen these scenarios play out a million times before we can spot them coming a mile away. As such bad tropes are very limiting and highly predictable. They’re often used as a means to subvert our expectations by providing a twist in the tale, but they feel lazy.
To sum up. A good trope is a familiar building block that can be the foundation of any number of original tales. In contrast, a bad trope is a familiar contrivance that was probably fun and interesting when you first came across it, but now just makes you roll your eyes.