I thought it might be interesting to take a look at this controversial topic and the power it has over writers. Cliché, not a term to be used lightly, literally means a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty (thank you wiki). It can come in the guise of a characterization, plot device, description, setting, idea or a million other things.
Some scoff at clichés, damning them alongside trans-fats, celebrity authors and Hitler. A cliché? Not in MY work, no way. Others discuss them in low, embarrassed tones. If forced to point one out to a fellow writer, it’s done with carefully averted eyes and a grimace, like the other person has just soiled themselves. “I think this might be a little…cliché.”
Why does this one word cause such discomfort? Because a cliché is an insult, a slur. A blight on a manuscript. And, a writer’s dirtiest little secret.
A secret—this loathsome term? Impossible! And yet it isn’t, because as much as we hate clichés and disparage their presence, we use them all the time in our writing.
Clarisse, can you hear the lambs screaming?
Okay, let me explain. It is said that are no unique ideas, no fresh thoughts, no new ways of saying or doing anything that has not been said or done before. Take a look at books like The Hero with a Thousand Faces or The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers and you’ll see what I mean, or simply think portals to other worlds, chosen ones, a magic fill-in-the-blank (swords, amulets, etc), hearts racing, a river of tears, a dying man’s declaration. Face it…clichés are everywhere.
Personally, I believe there are fresh ideas, characters and descriptions out there, hidden in the crags and crevices of our imaginations. Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability or the time to mine them into being. Oftentimes we believe we have something new, only to discover it has been done before.
Whether you believe ‘nothing is new’ or not, I hope we can agree that all writers use clichés at some point. Some are successful at it (Star Wars, anyone?) and some…not so much. The trick is to pick and choose when and where to use them and to always adapt them so they stand in a fresh light.
Over the next few posts, I want to take a look at a few of the worst offenders: evil villains, trite metaphors, sappy emotional expressions, plots we see too often, character stereotypes (the handsome rich jocks, Ugly Betty type nerds, the blonde & beautiful mean girls). Let’s drag this topic into the light and discuss how to freshen the tired (and sometime outright annoying) cliché.
Do you have a pet peeve cliché? Are you having trouble with keeping one out of your story? If so, mention it in the comment section and we’ll take a look at it together!