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Monday, January 26, 2015

Using Cliches in Your Writing: Why, When, and How

When people think of Pablo Picasso's work, they usually think of something like this:

Girl Before a Mirror by Pablo Picasso

What the general population doesn't know, is that his earlier work looks like this:

Science and Charity by Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso learned the rules of art and went on to break them to create his own style.

Writing rules are meant to be broken too, and I have a couple of posts about that. This one is on cliches. Next week's is on adverbs and adjectives. In both I'll tell you what the rule is, why it's a rule, and then why, when, and how to break it to your advantage.

The truth is, sometimes cliches are the way to go.

What's the Rule?

The Rule:
Don't use cliches.

A cliche is something that's been used so many times, it's lost its effect. The cliche can be a phrase, like "cream of the crop," "dead as a doornail," "thick as thieves," "like a kid in a candy store," or it can be a plotting technique, like having your hero discover there is a prophecy made about him defeating the antagonist, or it can be a character like an old wise gray-haired mentor (who dies of course) or the slutty but popular (blond) cheerleader.

Bullying is a cliche. So many heroes have been victims of bullying that audiences almost expect it. And have you ever noticed how many fictional twins are basically duplicates of each other? It's gotten to the point that if you have twins, people expect them to be almost the exact same. (And usually you can combine them into one character and it won't effect the story.)

Cliches can be found in micro-plotting, like I talked about in my post on action scenes. How many times have you seen people hanging from a ledge or a girl kicking a guy in the crotch? They're cliches! We've seen them dozens of times.

Writers can even create their own personal cliches. They use the same technique or phrase so much that it loses its effect. Even a single novel can have phrases or techniques that become cliche. Stephenie Meyer's characters are often found "putting her head between her knees" after running. I read that phrase so much that, for me at least, it started to feel cliche.

Why it's a Rule

At best, a cliche lacks impact. It's invisible. At worst, it generates groans and gag-reflexes.

The first time people heard "cream of the crop," "dead as a doornail," "kid in a candy story," those phrases had a powerful effect. So powerful in fact that people started using them. Now, though, they are so commonplace that they don't illicit any kind of emotion out of the reader. You know what the cliche means, but it doesn't strike you. They've lost their gumption, so a reader could care less about reading them. They aren't creative. And they can be annoying.

The prophecy plot line has lost its effect. People hanging off ledges about to die has lost its effect. (And have you ever noticed no one ever actually dies in any of those moments? Even if they do fall off, they find something else to hold onto or something catches them.) How about the cliche where a guy is fighting someone really good only to find out that the opponent is actually a girl?

Another reason not to use cliches is simply that they've already been done. A writer already did that, so why do the same thing again? Do something new! What can you bring to the genre that's new?

Finally, the last problem with cliches is that they don't allow writers to stretch and grow. Because the writer is just copying what everyone has already done, she isn't stretching herself to get better.

Why and When You Should Use Cliches

With that said, you should definitely take advantage of cliches. Here are some reasons why:

1) The truth is, if you write something 100% original--I mean like nothing anyone has ever seen or heard--people won't be able to relate to it. It's too "out there." I think that might be why the genre of Steampunk hasn't crested yet. It's still too new and "out there" for the general population to "get it."

2) Sometimes the cliche is what the audience wants. It appeals to them. They want the romantic interest to be a hunky rich guy. They want the hero and heroine to hate each other at first and then to get together romantically at the end. That audience wants to have the same experience reading your story as they did reading X amount of other stories like it. They want another rebellion in a dystopian novel.

3) Cliches may be worn ideas, but they are good ideas. Honestly, what gives you more story dynamic to play with, a hero fighting a villain who's a stranger, or a hero fighting a villain who is his dad? The one that's his dad of course! Look at all the story-stuff you have to play with. You get to play with their relationship, their identities, their complex emotions. Why do the lead male and lead female usually end up together? Because it's more satisfying and the audience is more invested in their relationship because they are invested in each of them already. The wise old mentor dying is a cliche because it's a good idea: it kicks up the heat in the story, has a high emotional impact, and gets the mentor out of the way for the hero to grow into the leader.

4) The cliche is the quickest way to communicate to your audience. Because they are familiar with the cliche, it doesn't need a lot of explanation. I can say it's a "catch-22" and you'll know exactly what I mean by it. Or I could say, "You're in a inescapable situation that has negative outcomes whether or not you choose to go in this direction," and not only did that take me more words to explain, it's not even a very good or accurate explanation. I'd need to spend more time explaining what I mean, probably with examples. In short, it's a great way to slow pacing. Or, I could just say "catch-22" and be done.

This applies with plotting and characterization too. If I'm doing something very original with the plot or creating a very unusual character, it's (almost) a guarantee that I'm going to have to spend more time explaining what's happening in the plot or describing why and how that character is the way she is. Whereas, if I just use something the audience has seen before, I don't need to explain it. I can show my mentor character as being old with a white beard and show him doing something powerful, and the audience immediately fills in the rest of his character because they've seen him before. I can show an antagonistic girl being seductive with the hero in a few seconds and immediately the audience knows who she is--she's the seductress character.

In fact, if you take one of these cliches and then try to explain it, that's when you are going to generate groans. That's when the reader gets annoyed. As a writer, you don't need to spend five chapters developing the wise old mentor character if he's just like Gandalf or Dumbledore or Yoda. The audience gets it. They've seen it before. So if you need to establish that mentor character real quick, then give a few clues that they are like the other mentor characters we've seen and bam, you're done. Don't spend five chapters on them if they're the same as what your reader has already seen.

This is why the prophecy cliche is stinking so badly right now in the industry. The prophecies are usually all about the same thing, and we've seen them so often lately, that when the writer tries to drag them out (because of course the prophecy is supposed to be a mysterious element that has to come into focus later in the story as a reveal) we groan and gag at the predictability. It's because the writer spent so much time on something we're so familiar with, dragging it out, that we feel exceptionally annoyed with the predictability.

5) Sometimes cliches fit your character. Here I'm not talking about a character that we have seen before, like the wise old mentor, but a character that uses cliches. If you have a cowboy in the wild west, then chances are good that he's going to say cliches common to cowboys and that time period. It's part of his voice, and if you are writing the whole story in his voice, you're probably going to have quite a few cowboy idioms in it. That's how he talks. Maybe he does cliche cowboy things because there is a reason cowboys do those cliche things. It would be stupid if he didn't do those cliche things. Again, sometimes it's stupid if you character didn't do something cliche.

Like my brother was watching a show where the character was trying to run and hide, and he checked to see if a door was unlocked so that he could hide in a house. We've seen scenes like this so many times that my brother made a comment like, "No duh it's gonna be locked!" But do you know what's stupider than checking a door that (the viewer expects) is going to be locked? Having a character who doesn't check that the door is locked before trying a more drastic way of getting inside.

There is a reason cliches are cliches. There are a reason that stereotypes are stereotypes. Often in the real world that reason is because it stems from an over-generalized truth. Maybe you have an Asian who owns a nail salon in America. Stereotypical, right? But a lot of nail salons are run by Asians. Some people may still get offended by it, but it's a truth, and you can balance the story out by having another Asian character who doesn't have a stereotypical job, and making your nail salon owner a round character.

6) Freak, you just really want to write this story! Your story is cliche, but it's what you want to write! It's right where your heart is. Heck, sometimes you as the writer want those cliches. You want to write a story like Lord of the Rings, or you want to write that tragic scene where the wise old mentor dies.

Great, but you need to take those cliches, manipulate them or add to them, to make them fresh again.

Three Ways to Use Cliches

So you've decided to write with cliches. Great! Here are three ways to use cliches effectively.

1) Make the cliche your own, personalize it. So maybe you decide your lead male and lead female are going to hate each other at first and fall in love by the end of the story. You're going to use some classic banter between them along the way. It's cliche. We've seen that before. That's okay, you just need to make it your own and personalize it.

Maybe your characters happen to both be magicians, and they use magic (real or fake) to banter with each other. Bring their characterization into the romantic plot line and their banter to make it theirs. Maybe the male banters by trying to mess up the female's magic trick. Maybe the female banters by blatantly showing him magic tricks that are superior, tricks that he can't see how to do them. They're exchanging wit through the process.

You've made the cliche theirs. Your character brought something new to the situation.

2) Put a fresh spin on the cliche. I'm referring back to the "falling off the ledge" example in my action scene post. A character is hanging off a ledge and about to fall. We've all seen it. But The Lord of the Rings put a fresh spin on it.

Frodo finally makes it to Mount Doom. Gollum attacks him, and the Ring falls into the lava, and where's Frodo? Oh, he's holding onto the ledge. But wait, some of his fingers were bitten off. They're bloody, so not only is his hand slippery, but he's missing those digits to hang on with. And to top it off, the expression on his face tells us he's not sure he wants to hold on. He's not sure he wants to be rescued. He wants to die. He wants to let go. "Don't you let go," Sam says. And there is a new kind of intensity, because we know Frodo might let go on his own free will.

See? The film makers took a cliche and made it fresh. So if you want to use a cliche, see how you can twist it and play with it to make it something new.

3) You can use cliches to draw your audience into a surprise. Here's how it works: you start with something cliche, and the audience subconsciously knows what's going to happen next because they've seen this cliche so many times. You use that to your advantage and--surprise!--you take the story in a different direction.

This happened for me in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. I knew what the protagonist's dad looked like, and when I got a glimpse of the main antagonist, I groaned inside and said, "It's his dad? Why does the villain always have to be the dad?" But I kept watching because the rest of the story was awesome. Then surprise! It's not the protagonists dad! It's someone who looks exactly like him, but they aren't twins. How is that possible? Is the villain a clone? Is he a shape-shifter? I don't know. I have to keep watching to find out. And we get an awesome backstory of the villain out of it.

The Amazing Spider-man movies are pro at dealing with cliches and then surprising us. We've seen enough superhero movies to know, we've probably seen enough Spider-man movies to know, that Peter Parker wears a mask in an attempt to keep his identity hidden from everyone, even his family and love interest. In the older Spider-man movies, that fact was played with a lot for some interesting story lines. But in the new reboot, Peter Parker is having dinner at Gwen's house and strives to keep his superhero identity away from her dad. We've seen this before. But then right after, he tells Gwen that's he's Spider-man like it's no big deal. I was a little surprised. There are more instances where the film makers start with cliches to surprise their audience, so watch for them. In fact, a lot of the Marvel movie play with cliches this way too.

I started watching Guardians of the Galaxy, and it opens with a death scene with our hero as a child. The protagonist's mother is lying in a hospital bed. She's dying of cancer of course (which fictional characters doesn't these days? It's either cancer or a car crash. I mean, yes, cancer really is awful and serious, but there are a million different ways to die). And I thought, oh great, another tragic cancer death scene. It's so cliche!

But then the writers didn't something I've never seen before. As the mother is dying, she asks for her son to hold her hand and comfort her, but the son, our protagonist, turns away. The mother gets a little more desperate and begs for her son to take her hand. But the protagonist won't look at her. And his mother dies like that Her son is upset about her death, but that's how he reacted to it! It's tragic. It offers interesting insight into our hero. It's a cliche with a surprise ending.

So use cliches to your advantage.


  1. I was linked to your post about writing humor, and I really liked that, so I’ve been reading some more of your posts and I’m really enjoying them!

    I think this one’s especially interesting to me because I do really like cliches, and want to learn how to write them well. I agree that they can work really well when pulled off correctly. Cliches are cliche because they’ve been used so much. And they’ve been used so much because they work! And if using them because the reader already knows what they mean seems like a cop out because then you don’t have to be creative and explain as much…well, that’s how language in general works, basically. You say certain words and people know what they mean. I think cliches are like a language! Or a sort of short hand maybe? If that makes any sense.

    I guess I kinda just repeated some of the points you made, but I really enjoy discussing this kind of thing and your posts are really insightful! Thanks so much for taking the time to write them! I’ll definitely be checking this blog for updates. :)

  2. Hi I'm currently writing a story, it's called "Mythical Reality". I've been reading sources about cliches as of late and I'm trying to put my own imagination into this story because my main goal is for it to be very successful one day :)


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