June 5, 2017
Cliches in Writing: What to Do About Them
You may remember that a couple months ago I did a post on tropes in literature. (If you didn't see it, go take a look now.) This is sort of a follow-up to that post, except it's on cliches in literature.
The problem with cliches is that they instantly make readers roll their eyes, and maybe even stop reading. But what if your whole story is based around a cliche? Don't worry, this post will help you. Let's start with the definition of a cliche.
Dictionary.com says a cliche is "A trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse".
You can probably think of some cliches just off of that definition. Love triangles, Chosen Ones, and naive farm boy are a few. But not only ideas are considered cliche. You can also have cliched expressions. White as snow, cold as ice, and bull in a china shop are a few examples. You can even have cliche, or stereotyped, people, like the mean cheerleader, the airhead jock, and the fumbling nerd.
So, a cliche is any overused or stereotype phrase or idea. The problem is, our writing and novels are unintentionally full of them. We don't mean to, but it's human nature to copy other works, which means cliches slip in. But how do you deal with them?
Before you can worry about what to do with cliches, you need to find them first. Finding them can be both easy and hard.
It's easy when it's something you're quick to recognize as cliche. Like the examples above, or other ones you can think of. Don't worry if a cliche is a major part of your plot right now. Just identify it, and I'll tell you what to do about it in a minute.
They can be hard to find if it's a cliche that is pretending to be something else. This is mostly with expressions or characters. You may think you have a non-stereotypical character, then find out there are about three hundred others just like her. Or common phrases that seem to slip their way into your writing. You know the ones I'm talking about. While it may be tempting to ignore them, don't. Your writing will be much stronger if you deal with them.
"And the couple going home is. . . ", the cliche. (Sorry, not sorry. I'm a big Dancing with the Stars fan.) This is the first idea of what you can do with cliches in your writing. Ruthlessly remove them.
Cliches that you added just because, or that are unnecessary to the story can be cut immediately. Or if that won't work, because you need it too much, try the second method of dealing with cliches.
Often you can't simply cut out cliches in your writing, especially if you built your story around one, like I mentioned earlier. Or if you need to describe something some way or need a certain character type. Instead, what you can do is replace or change your cliche into something better.
Replacing a cliche is fairly easy, as long you know what to replace it with. That character that is a total stereotype? Simply replace her or him with a less cliche character. Instead of a mean cheerleader, what about a nasty science geek that puts concoctions in people's bags to humiliate them?
Changing is almost the same, except instead of putting in something new, you take the old, worn out cliche, and flip it on it's head to make something fresh and new. Like the Chosen One. There are lots of posts out there on changing up that one. (May I suggest one of these three? 10 Fantasy Cliches and Ideas to Change Them, 7 New and Improved Versions of the Chosen One Trope, and Five Ways to Twist the Chosen One Cliche.) You could do the same for love triangles, heroic quests, and other cliches.
That still leaves the problem of phrases like a chip off the old block and hold your horses. (Check out this list for a whole bunch of them.) One of my favorite things to do is an exercise that I can't remember where I heard. You write down the phrase you're trying to use, then brainstorm ways to make it interesting. Change white to alabaster or snow to blank paper. Keep going until you find something original, but not too out there.
A quick note of caution
It's okay if your novel has cliches. It is practically impossible to avoid them. And sometimes, it's even good. Especially in humor novels. Be wise in deciding what to keep, get rid of, and change. Think more about the story and less about originality. Remember, it's all been done before. But no one can write a story like you can.
Let's talk! What are your thoughts on cliches? How do you deal with them? Do you think there are times cliches are good? Tell me in the comments.