So I spent the last several posts talking about how we shouldn’t assume and how we should break the mold. Mould?
However, there is an advantage of using tropes and cliches. When you break the stereotype, you surprise your audience. That’s because we all know how the story goes and it’s a reversal of expectations. So that means when you do use the cliche, purposefully, you have less work because the audience can fill in the cliche themselves.
When you go to the movie theatre or sit at home with your friends and watch a scary movie, it’s hard not to scream at the characters. Why are you splitting up? Why are you going into the woods? Don’t go into the basement!
At this point, some tropes are generally not appropriate to use unless in parody. And some just won’t be useful to you the way they’re generally used. It could be possible that you want to paint your villain red, black, and slimy green so that we know who he is, but there are better ways to establish your villain than color-coding. But then when you invoke the High Fantasy Evil Overlord trope, your readers know what goes into being an evil overlord and will fill in a lot for you. If you say “far north”, your readers know what that looks like. They know he has some sort of Evil Citadel, and that he’s surrounded by The Army of Evil and Impending Doom. That saves you space having to say anything about it.
When I invoke a Final Fantasy trope, and I then say the word, “crystal”, anyone who knows Final Fantasy knows that the crystal is incredibly important, powerful, and good, and that the villain wants to…steal it or destroy it or something and we have to stop it. I don’t have to explain that if something happens to the crystals, the world is destroyed. No one’s going to be surprised when the villain has at least one final form, either.
I just said that maybe necromantic undead monsters should be, maybe, not assumed evil. But I meant that you, the writer, shouldn’t assume they’re evil and if you decide they’re not, you’re going to have to labor the point. Your reader is going to make that assumption, and that can work in your favor if you want to establish that army marching on the country is incredibly bad quickly. Because the only thing worse than an army marching on a country is an army of skeletons marching on a country. Or orcs. Orcs get bad rap too.
The problem with assumptions is that they can be a form of lazy or amateurish writing. They can lead to boring, mundane, vanilla writing. It lacks innovation. But assumptions are tools and when used correctly, they allow you to make a masterpiece.
The most important assumptions I work with tend to be in magic. People who read a lot of fantasy come to make broad allowances and expect certain traditions for magic. As long as a magic system is internally consistent, it’s usually good to go. Readers don’t worry where magic comes from unless it’s important for some reason. Readers don’t question why some people can use magic and others can’t, not usually. It’s magic, we all know that means doing things that don’t make any sense at all for no reason whatsoever other than that we wanted it to.
But in working with these assumptions, I still will have to labor a little. The hand-waving of “don’t worry about it; it’s magic” should be used judiciously. I prefer hard magic systems with solid rules so I have to establish those rules – and in that case, I fight the assumptions. Why are there rules, isn’t it magic? Can’t it just do whatever it wants? But even in fighting that question, we have accepted the fact that even magic has rules because readers will have encountered magic systems with solid rules that were fun to work with and so it’s assumed, too, that even magic has its limits. The two assumptions work side-by-side: even magic has its limits, but if those limits are dumb, why are they there? That forces me to think about the rules and make good ones, and once I do, no one will question why magic has rules (unless they’re new to the genre).
Use assumptions as shortcuts and do so carefully. I’m not ever going to say “don’t use cliches” because cliches and tropes became such for good reasons. They’re not off-limits. Nothing is forbidden to you as a writer. When you hearken to advice like “don’t use flashbacks”, “don’t use adjectives”, and “don’t use cliches”, you limit yourself in a way that’s foolish for a writer. There is no forbidden fruit, not even writing yourself into your own story.
But whatever you do, do it well – there is no forbidden fruit, but there’s certainly a lot of rotten fruit.