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Clichés – How Can You Use Them?

Clichés - Enemy? Or Friend?

How can a writer use cliches? Check out awesome ideas for how to make cliches your writing friend!

Every time I turn on the television or pick up a new book at the bookstore, I see yet another cliché or variation on a cliché, and I roll my eyes.

“Again?” I say. “Geez! Is everybody these days so lacking in imagination, so devoid of creative talent, that they can’t come up with something new? Something original?”

Of course my next thought is usually, “Damn! How can I cash in on this?”

Who hasn’t heard the old saw, “Clichés – avoid them like the plague?”

But should we? Really? For those of you who’ve been asleep the last twenty-five years, clichés appear to be the only thing out there anymore.

We’ve got angst-ridden teenage vampires, zombies de jour, countless versions of the hero’s quest (ala Joseph Campbell) in the form of an assortment of superhero origin stories. There’s time travel in 37 flavors, invading aliens, and dragons galore.

What is a cliché? In its everyday usage, a cliche is a turn of phrase, such as:

  • “dead as a door nail”
  • “bad to the bone”
  • or “cool as a fan”

And while in writing, a cliché could simply be a phrase, a cliché can also be a character or a story line that’s been used so many times it has lost its originality, its flavor, its ability to surprise and entertain readers.

Think of the romance novel with its fairy tale ending. Who wants to read a book where you already know the protagonist is going to live happily ever after?

For horror fans, readers of Stephen King novels, it’s generally the opposite. You know someone, or even everyone is going to die.

In sci-fi novels you’ve got your invading aliens and your time travel tropes.

While in mystery you’ve got the hard-boiled detective or the plucky old lady who sells flowers during the day and solves gruesome murders in her spare time.

Since the market keeps churning them out, its obvious that clichés sell.

The trick then, is selling your cliché. Believe it or not, there’s a secret to it. To getting it past the discriminating eyes of the front desk police at a major publisher, and into the printing presses to ultimately become the latest fad. But I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

If you happen to know that secret, please contact me and share it with me. I’d be willing to pay for it.

Characters – One obvious way though, is to consider exactly what we mean by cliche. If we consider a cliché as an underdeveloped character, we can then conclude that our job as a writer is to delve deeper into that character.

  • What was your vampire like as a toddler, for example?
  • Or how did your hard-boiled detective become an alcoholic?

Hobbies or Interests – Give your characters enigmatic habits.

  • Make your hard-boiled detective a crack-head
  • Your plucky heroine a hash-oil smoker

Give them attitudes and opinions on subjects like politics or religion.

Write a complete history of your characters from cradle to grave, even if you’re not going to use the majority of it.

  • Your strong, manly hero could be into ballet, crossword puzzles, or crochet.

Just don’t take it too far, or you’ll end up in yet another cliché. However the conventional cliché is normally portrayed, take it and turn it on its head.

Twists – turn your cliché on its head. Defy expectations.

  • Make your vampires hate the sight of blood.
  • Make your step-mothers caring and loving, and the step-father evil and wicked.
  • Make your hard-boiled detective a bird-watcher or trivia lover.
  • Make your macho-man super-hero a Lego fanatic or a cello player.

Inject Humor – Be Lighthearted and Playful – Have Fun – Find a way to combine clichés in new and fresh ways.

  • Have a hard-boiled detective go through a time machine, and solve the murder of a king in medieval times.
  • Put Cinderella in a modern high-school.
  • Bring Romeo and Juliet into modern times. But instead of feuding families, have them come from feuding street gangs.

Oh, wait, that’s already been done. Oops.

  • Try combining a western, with a new sheriff in town, and have the town get invaded by aliens.

Oh, wait! That’s already been done too!

  • How about a zombie romance?

What could be more romantic than Zombie love? Or a zombie marriage?

“Honey, your feet stink. Would you mind leaving them outside?”

Where, instead of living happily ever after, the characters die happily ever after?

Time Travel – Time travel offers all kinds of possibilities for mixing and matching cliches.

  • You could send Freddy Krueger through a time machine and have him come out in say, Roman times.

Or how about this?

  • Rambo versus Attila the Hun?
  • Or Spiderman versus Genghis Khan?
Cliches - can you really avoid them in story writing? How can you use them instead?

Oh, well. You get the drift. If what makes a cliché is the fact that it fails to surprise, then make it your goal as a writer to surprise your reader with something new.

Something fresh.

Even if it is in an old wrapper.

What makes clichés popular in the first place is their ability to draw in the reader. Because in every cliché, there’s an element certain readers can identify with, and therefore enjoy.

With a little ingenuity and imagination, maybe you can be the one to cash on the next new (old) thing.

Happy writing!

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