I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another article about clichés.”
Yes, I know. Google “clichés in writing” and most of what comes up tells you to avoid them. No, wait! Don’t hit that back button yet. I’m not going to tell you to avoid clichés. Because here’s the deal. You can’t avoid clichés.
If what I’ve heard is true, that there are only seven basic plots, then every one of them is cliché by now. And even if there are more than seven, you’d have to be a lot smarter than me to think up a plot that’s completely original.
I used to drive myself halfway to the psychiatric ward trying to come up with something that’s never been done before. I couldn’t do it. Every time I’d brainstorm what I thought was a great idea, I’d find it on someone’s list of Twenty Clichés you Should Never Use. So I’d ditch the idea and try to think of something else. Over and over again.
Here’s the thing: this process of obsessive trial and error didn’t get me anywhere. It didn’t help me dream up some new and entirely untouched storyline. It threw me into a miserable state of writer’s block.
To be clear, I’m not encouraging you to copy from other writers or be careless in how you use clichés. But I’ve come to believe that it isn’t the plot itself that’s completely original. It’s your own unique take on it.
Don’t try to avoid clichés. Instead, dress them up, twist them around, and flip them upside down and inside out until they have become unrecognizable. Until they’re something only you could have created.
- Dress it up. Decorate an overused plotline by using unique symbols, settings, and people. Fantasy is obsessed with light and darkness to symbolize the contrast between good and evil; but what if you used something else? Heat and cold, for example. And forget Medieval Europe; why not set your story in a Futuristic America? Instead of the predictable elves, dwarfs, and dragons, create your own non-human races.
- Twist it around. Give the cliché a unique or surprising turn. Maybe the dark lord has multiple personalities and presents himself as an ally to the good guys. Maybe the farmboy/rightful king isn’t, in fact, a direct father-to-son heir. Maybe the hero ends up accidentally fulfilling the quest while trying to run away from his overprotective father.
- Flip it upside down and inside out. If the cliché has an opposite, take advantage of it. What if your king became a farmboy? Or your elves were ugly, mortal, and weak? Or your sentient magic sword was on a quest to find the hero? You could also give the cliché a humorous or self-degrading twist. My favorite example of this comes from Star Wars. Dashing Heroes lead a Bold Mission to save the Princess. Only they’re pretty inept at doing it, and she ends up saving their tails a time or two in the process.
My main advice? Just have some fun and see how much you can transform those boring old clichés! Don’t let the fact that you’re using a cliché interfere with your creativity.
So what about you? How do you deal with clichés?