I've been knocked flat by a nasty cold for a week now, so please enjoy this visit to the archives for another look at using clichés. With luck (and a lot of chicken soup and NyQuil), I'll be back on my feet and at the keyboard soon.
One of my favorite writing T-shirts says “I avoid clichés like the plague.” But clichés are so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that it’s hard to eliminate them completely from our writing. For me, the more casual the situation, the more often I use them. (You’ll see them a lot more on the blog than in my books, for example.)
Clichés are not bad. (Didn’t expect that, did you?) They’re cultural shorthand to convey an idea. However, it’s this ease of communication that makes them undesirable in our writing. We’re writers. We’re supposed to be original. Using something that’s been used "for ages" is taking the lazy way out and making the reader do the work. Even worse, because clichés are so culturally known, readers aren’t surprised by them. How many TV/movie plots have you ever figured out right away because of the clichés used? I’d guess a lot.
But you can make clichés work for you instead of against you.
(Here's a funny example on how clichés hurt your writing)
I had a WIP with a “director of security” type position and a “second in command” guy. It’s a cliché that both these roles are often filled by a character who’s up to no good. The guy in charge of your security is secretly working against you. Your second in command is trying to do you in and take over. No matter what the genre, this role is frequently where the bad guy hides.
Obviously I didn’t want to make either of these guys a bad guy. Readers would see that coming. However, knowing that readers are going to expect them to be bad lets me play with those expectations. I can twist the cliché, have my characters behave in ways that could easily be interpreted as helpful or hurtful and let the reader assume the wrong thing. I can play into those expectations and then yank the rug out from under readers later when they realize those actions weren’t the actions of a villain.
You can also take something known and twist it. Years ago I read a book called Villains By Necessity by Eve Forward. Forward took the tried-and-true “good vs evil” cliché and turned it on its head. The good guys have won, evil is gone, but it hasn’t turned out exactly as all the fairytales said it would. The world is unbalanced now, and that’s causing trouble. A group realizes that the world needs a little evil, and to save it, they have to turn into bad guys. The “villains” have to save the world. What a great twist!
My own novel The Shifter developed this way as well. I was playing with various fantasy clichés, trying to do something new. I ended up focusing on healing, and realized that you never saw it used for evil. There were rarely any consequences to it. What if healing could be bad? What if it could be harmful? And thus a book was born.
(Here's more on how clichés can make your writing stronger)
If you have a clichéd idea, opening, or character, try looking at how you can make that cliché different.
- Can you do the opposite of what’s expected?
- Can you make it positive if it’s a negative? Negative if it’s a positive? (As in, if the cliché is always for the good guy can you give it to the bad guy, and vice versa?)
- Is there something that hasn’t been done with it already? Can you:
Let’s look at one of the more common clichés: Describing a character by looking in the mirror.
- Change the gender?
- Change the age?
- Change the species?
- Change the genre?
- Change the tone?
- Change the format?
How many times have you heard “Don’t have your character look in a mirror to describe themselves.” It’s good advice, but what if your book absolutely needs to do this?
Twist the cliché.
First, look at the reasons why this is a cliché. (And “it’s been done to death” doesn’t count.)
- Everyone looks in the mirror.
- Studying yourself in the mirror is something we all do.
- It’s easy to get in the descriptive details.
- It’s static, relying on the reader to do the work. (even if that work is to sit there and be spoon fed information)
(Here's more on avoiding stereotypes)
Now, let’s look at the list and see what we can come up with:
Can you do the opposite of what’s expected? You expect to see the person, so what if they have no reflection? What if they just remember what they can no longer see? What if they go out of their way to avoid looking into mirrors? What if it’s someone else looking at them as they look into the mirror?
Can you make it positive if it’s a negative? What if they have something they didn’t have before? Their appearance changed in a way that’s intriguing.
Negative if it’s a positive? What if they see something they don’t want to see? What if they’re always looking into mirrors because they need to constantly watch behind them? What if they’re waiting for something bad to show up in their reflection?
Naturally, the story will dictate which direction you go with this, but you can already see how a little brainstorming has opened up several ideas.
Unsure if what you’re doing is a cliché or not? Wander through TV Tropes, one of the most comprehensive cliché database I’ve ever seen. It covers all the common plots, tricks, and clichés and gives you plenty of examples. It covers books, TV, comics, and movies, so don’t let the name fool you.
Clichés come with expectations. Defy those expectations, and your cliché can become more than cultural short hand.
What clichés do you struggle with? Does your WIP use any? Are they working or not working?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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