“That just… sounds cliché.”
Four words every writer cringes at. We have so many ideas. We try so hard. And then someone comes along and tells us it is cliché. Commonplace. And we wonder how on earth we’re going to fix our story when everything seems to have been done already.
If you read a lot or watch any number of movies, you’ll recognize a number of clichés on sight. The dashing prince rescues the helpless princess. The mentor dies and his student goes on to save the world. The villain dresses in a long black cape and carries a pet snake on a staff.
What is a cliché?
A cliché, by definition, is anything which has become trite or commonplace through overuse. These can be phrases, such as ‘right as rain’ or ‘red as a cherry’. They can also be a mold fitted to a character, such as the carefree friend or the grim mentor. And, of course, there are cliché scenes: a handsome young man glimpsing a beautiful lady across a courtyard and falling desperately in love. The mentor dying. The villain telling the captured hero all his plans.
Some clichés are a bit sickening, like falling in love at first sight. Or they can be lazy, like the villains laying out the details of their evil plots. (Don’t be offended if you have one of these scenes in your book. I’ve had them too and I’ll touch on this cliché again in a minute.) But many clichés have remained popular because they work. People connect with them or enjoy them. Who doesn’t thrill over the heroic rescue or ache for the main character as his mentor dies saving him? (Well, mentors do die a bit too often, so the emotional impact is beginning to fail. Again, more on that in a moment.)
Can you use clichés?
A writer could make whole stories just using stock cliché characters and plots. Still, just because something is cliché doesn’t mean it should be abandoned out of hand. While a writer won’t want to use many, if any, clichés outright, referencing or making note of them can add freshness and humor to a story.
- Twist a cliché for humor
Take a cliché and twist it just enough that it’s recognizable and yet different. Keep the grim mentor, but let him make puns with a straight face to infuriate his apprentice. Perhaps the foolish antics of the court jester covers a formal character who drop hints about his king’s table manners along with his jests. Or maybe the new knight tries desperately to be heroic, completely fumbling the bows and formalities of rescuing his betrothed, while the demure maiden provokes her captors with irritating pranks they can’t trace back to anyone.
This is especially pleasing when done with phrases. Starts a common cliché phrase the normal way, then twists it into something completely new. Instead of ‘pale as death’, find something suiting the character, the setting, and the emotion and change it ‘pale as the marshmallows he inhaled by the dozen’. Instead of ‘all’s fair in love and war’ change it to ‘all’s fair in love and the pursuit of chocolate’.
Or, instead of simply freshening a cliché, you can make fun of it. This is also very amusing, both as a writer and as a reader. If something is cliché, and the character recognizes it as cliché, the possibilities are enormous. They may embrace it, or make fun of it, or use it as a starting point for other actions. ‘Well, since I’m obviously the villain and wearing black, I decided I’d better take a trip to the pet store and find an intimidating animal’ *presents hamster* *alternately presents snake, holding it as far from self as possible with thinly disguised disgust, then quickly depositing it back in its box*
And if the story is modern, characters can comment outright on cliques. “You do realize that this is the part of a movie where I, as your sidekick, would die to give you the motivation to move on.”
Opening with a clichéd line or scene and then changing it halfway through can be hilarious. Take that one moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Iron Man asks Ultron about something and Ultron replies with ‘I’m glad you asked that because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…’ and then proceeds to attack. That is one of my favorite movie lines because yes…villains and monologuing. It happens. All. The. Time. Filmmakers made fun of that in The Incredibles too when two of the heroes are reminiscing on old fights and laughing about how they’d be caught and then the villain would start monologuing, giving them time to escape.
- Twist a cliché for surprise
Use clichés as a springboard to figure out something new. Note the normal course of events and then turn the character or setting on its head. Maybe it’s the apprentice who dies and the mentor has to go save the land. Maybe it’s the dragon who rescues the prince from the princess.
For every cliché, there is a surprise. The reader expects one thing, so give them something completely different. Or give them what they are expecting, then twist the result of that result.
The humor mentioned in the first point goes hand in hand with surprise, but surprise doesn’t always have to be funny. It can heighten tension when the rescue fails. It can add to the downward spiral of the third plot point when the villain shoots the hero instead of monologue. Surprise is one of the most valuable uses of clichés – once you know what the reader expects, you can change it in almost any direction.
- Use clichés (or not)
Some clichés you love. Admit it. The character who pulls daggers out of every item of clothing and still has one to break out of jail later on. The mentor sitting in the forest and knowing exactly when his apprentice is trying to sneak up on him. The warrior who almost dies and makes a casual joke about how the day was a bit more difficult than normal. Don’t use clichés just because they are funny or they work, of course, but there are clichés that do work and that can fit well.
Your hero might be the prophesied deliverer. The sword might be unbreakable or the dragon rider might be fated to lead the nations. These are epic ideas that have been around for so long because they work. At the same time, you will want to add your own twist to the cliché to make it fresh. Perhaps the prophecy changes as the deliverer makes mistakes. Maybe the sword has ‘terms and conditions’ or the dragon rider turns out to be an aged grandmother. Make the story your own. Don’t settle for normal.
And there are some clichés that, quite frankly, it’s best to avoid unless you are making fun of them or have a really good way to freshen them up.
Take is the villain’s monolog of ‘let me tell you my evil plan since I’m going to kill you, so you’ll die without hope’. It is pretty common, and it’s easy for the writer because we can give our character and reader the information they need. But it can also be lazy on our part (I’ve struggled with this too; how to give the main character the information he needs without several paragraphs of invasion plans) and sometimes is a bit ridiculous. This isn’t to say a scene where the villain tells the character his plans can never work. But it needs to fit with the characters and the themes, not just be an easy way out. And it’s important to note that, even when a cliché works, the reader’s eyes might glaze over slightly because they’ve read it so many times already.
That’s the problem with the death of mentors. This cliché irritates me mainly because I wanted to kill the mentor of one of my own characters but I couldn’t for the annoying reason that it has been done so much. Instead of portraying the heartrending emotion I wanted, it would just seem normal—boring even. So I ended up killing the main character’s best friend instead, which was more difficult for everyone involved and had a deeper emotional impact. The mentor, on the other hand, went on to be an example of a wrong experiment in living.
Finally, for those, breaking into the top-secret villain’s lair, his security is sure to be tight. He’s not going to hire inept soldiers to guard him. If your main character is being shot at by the guards of the high-security complex he’s breaking into, he’s likely to be hit. If he’s attacked by several soldiers, he’ll have to be very good to defeat or escape them.
Clichés in summary
Clichés are still in use nowadays because they work. They had power. Even the ones fading from overuse can be dissected. Figure out how they pull on emotions, then build up a new idea around that grain.
Keeping clichés in mind is very useful. Freshen them up, make fun of them or add a twist of humor and surprise. In the end, you’ll get a story worth its weight in gold. Or chocolate. Or maybe even moon gems.