The hard-ass drill sergeant walks the barracks during an evening inspecting his cadets (currently undergoing commando training) indulge in a rare day off. Two cadets are playing chess. The drill sergeant takes one look and says “checkmate in one move” and when the cadets’ looks say no way it can be done, he gives them five minutes to think about it and walks over to another cadet (the hero) who is playing a mournful tune on his harmonica.
The sergeant asks the hero “Do you play chess?”. To which the hero says “Chess is your thing, I have mine” and points to the harmonica. The drill sergeant grunts an acknowledgment, walks over to the two chess players. He says “Bishop to Queen Three” and almost immediately comes over to the hero’s bunk. He grabs (almost snatches) the harmonica out of the hero’s hands, wipes it on his shirt sleeves and blasts a short sharp ditty of a tune before returning it a dumbstruck hero.
Now this could be a scene you can visualize yourself seeing in say the next “Officer and a Gentleman” inspired movie very easily. A scene like this is built on what is generally referred to as Tropes. A trope is technically defined as fairly standard recognizable device that serves as a building block for any kind of narrative. A Cliche is just a trope done to death. A trope is inevitable if you write long enough, but cliche is the kiss of death.
In the scene I described above the “Bishop to Queen Three” and playing of the harmonica by the Hard Ass drill sergeant are very clichéd representations of the trope “A Man’s Renaissance Man“. In fact the term “Bishop to Queen Three” and all that it implies(especially that the cadets are moronic enough to miss out on just running all possible moves of the remaining chess pieces by the time the sergeant comes back) is pure weapons grade cliché. However the Hard-Ass with a hidden side is a trope and can be done well.
The best weapon a writer has with regards to Tropes or clichés is subversion. The Simpsons subverted the cliché of “Bishop to Queen Three” in the episode where Home takes out the Crayon lodged in his brain and becomes super smart. He runs by two geezers in a park playing chess (A Trope that is perhaps almost a cliché’ in itself 😛 ) and says “Bishop to Queen Three”. The humor and subversion comes from the fact that the geezers are playing Scrabble and mention the fact to Homer. Further subversion occurs when Homer uses his trademark fist shake and forces them to do “Bishop to Queen Three” after emphatically repeating his earlier statement (a Trope in itself).
The line between tropes and clichés is getting especially blurred in this high output world of creativity and mega-events. As writers, we must be wary of this trend and try to find new ways to subvert these “oh so familiar” / “ain’t cool if every other book does it” kind of pitfall situations, so as to keep the readers from yawing the “been there, done that, Bendis did it better” mega yawns.
Before we part ways, here is a homework exercise. Pop in that DVD of “Star Trek 2 : Wrath of the Khan” and watch Shatner go “KHANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!”. Pay special attention to how the camera moves away from him and try to remember all such instances where this has been copied. Otherwise spend some time browsing TVtropes.org , a wiki dedicated to cataloging the Tropes in TV/Movies and Comics.