Clichés are something I’m still coming to terms with as a writer. I used to think that clichés were mostly common phrases;
“As blind as a bat.”
“In the nick of time!”
“You got up on the wrong side of the bed.”
And while these are examples of clichés, they’re not alone. A cliché is essentially anything that has become overused or unoriginal. And in writing, the last thing you want to do is fill your work with them.
What is a cliché?
As mentioned above, a cliché is something overused, something that doesn’t come from original thoughts. These often tend to slip into our vocabulary, and so we may end up writing them without realising it. A cliché can be a word choice or phrase, but also a character or story arc.
As well as the phrases above here are some other examples:
“She took a deep breath.”
“He’d bitten off more than he could chew.”
“She was as fierce as a lion.”
So how do you avoid them? I’ve taken to looking at the cliché, and breaking down exactly what it is I’m trying to convey with those words. The trick is to then reword the phrase using your own original descriptions. So “she was as fierce as a lion” may become: “She handled injustice with strength, her anger painting blood-red blotches onto her cheeks. Her shoulders would lower as she straightened her spine, and when she let loose her opinion, you could convince yourself it was a roar that filled the room, rather than words.”
Character clichés are very real, and come mainly in the form of stereotypes. The downtrodden underdog who rises to become the hero. The plain woman, with no distinct personality traits, but manages to transform into a beauty just in time to win her crushes heart. The bitter lonely old man who learns to accept love from, and give love to, his neighbors. These have all be done 100 times before.
So how do you avoid it? Essentially, your character arc can be whatever you choose it to be. But there has to be substance behind it, rather than things working out ‘just because…’ Entwine their back story, explore their motives, put them up against conflict and pitfalls. Their arc has to be believable and make sense.
Plot clichés are similar to character clichés. Overused story lines. The protagonist is saved by an unlikely hero, who manages to save the day with no real issue. The love triangle, which somehow resolves, leaving all three people involved happy and satisfied, so no-one gets left out of the happy ending. These are too obvious and too boring. Your plot should contain surprising twists and turns, and break the boundaries* of what’s typically expected. Understanding clichés in plots can be a great way to lure readers into a false sense of expectation, only to be wowed by a clever new twist.
When is it okay to use clichés
Using clichés can be done well, if they’re needed. A character may fit the role of a very specific stereotype at the start of the story, but surprise the reader by their actions as their arc progresses. But make sure you do this well. No surprises for the sake of surprises!
Another example, is dialogue. It’s common for people to talk with clichés in conversation. And certain people live by them. You might have an eccentric Aunt, or a philosophical stoner, who speak in clichés all the time. This can add humour and authenticity to certain characters and the way they talk, so don’t omit them if they serve a purpose.
What are your thoughts on clichés in writing? Have you ever had any issues with them? Leave me a comment to let me know.
* This is a cliche, woops!