When Is It Okay To Cliché?

One trap that writers, especially Newbies, fall into is writing clichés. These generally tend to cause readers to roll their eyes, at best, or throw their book against the wall, at worst.

Writers should always strive to find original ideas and viewpoints to include in their stories. I agree that clichés should be handled with caution, but I don’t think they need to be avoided like the plague (which, in itself, is a cliché).

Bottom Line: we can learn from clichés!

Former creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering, and personal hero of mine, Marty Sklar has created true, physical worlds of fantasy and fiction. In his book Dream It! Do It!, he mentions a piece of sage advice written on a conference room wall. Since it comes from another pretty famous story teller, I paid attention to it.

“Don’t avoid clichés; they are clichés because they work!” ­­–George Lucas

–Marty Sklar, Dream it! Do it!

I don’t think he meant this as a way to green light throwing clichés around freely. What Marty and George are both pointing out is that clichés hold kernels of universal truth, understanding, and acceptance.

Clichés become clichés because they clearly do something right. The trap of clichés comes when a writer uses them at the expense of their own creativity.

Not all Tropes are Cliches…

Before diving into when it is okay to cliché, it is important to distinguish between clichés and tropes. Though often used interchangeably, the two are similar but not the same!

A trope is a common convention or plot device. These are nearly impossible to avoid entirely since most basic plot elements in fiction can tie back to a trope.  

A cliché is a device used so much it has become tired and uncreative. A cliché could be an overused expression or phrase, such as “her heart was as cold as ice.” It could also be a worn-out description, like a dark sinister lair for the villain to reside. Tropes are clichés when the common convention is utilized without adding anything new.  

Readers don’t like to read the same recycled material over and over again, which is why clichés get such a harsh reputation

How to use cliches without the eye rolls

Put the stick down, that horse is dead… Even that sentence felt a bit clichéd, but the sentiment is true. Using a cliché without adding anything to it is pretty much the same as beating a dead horse.

Instead of avoiding the cliché, writers should embrace it, understand it and subvert it. Take a cliché and use a fresh style of wording and phrasing. Pair tried and true ideas with a new concept and run with it. Catch your readers off guard by setting them up with what they expect, and twist the cliché to hit them with the unexpected!

Since most clichés are clichés because they are tried and universally accepted, they can be used to help ease the reader into some “out there” concept. Cliché’s can help develop strange attractors, ideas that are foreign but familiar. In this sense, the cliché acts as a bridge to help your reader cross into this weird, new concept you created.

Keep generating as many new and original ideas as possible. It helps to research and understand common tropes (especially ones pertaining to whatever genre you are writing in). The better you can identify what is a common cliché, the easier it is to subvert or transform it.

BONUS: the tropes I love to read in fiction!

The Found Family: There’s nothing like a rag tag group of misfits that all seem to use their differences to strengthen the collective unit. Sometimes the family you choose is stronger than the one you are born into.

An Ancient Pantheon of Gods: I adore reading about ancient mythology. I especially love when a fantasy world doesn’t just have unique religious deities, but when those deities have a hand in what is going on in the story.

Romantic Teasers: I eat up a good love story and tend to fawn over couples who don’t fall in love at first sight. I like to see the little quirks and nuances bubble up to form an authentic relationship. Physical interactions (like a first kiss) should be teased at a little bit. There is something so enticing about coming so close but not quite, that makes whenever the couple does get together such a great moment.

The Training Montage: If there is a cool piece of magic or special ability a hero will use in the story, I want to be right there with them as they learn how to master it. This doesn’t have to be a montage in the film sense, but I love glimpses of a hero trying, failing, and getting stronger at whatever they are supposed to be training at.

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