Why do writers slip so easily into the cliché trap? I was a judge for a writer’s contest in the spring, and I ended up having to give lower marks to some of the entries for the use of clichés. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about clichéd writing—especially how I can avoid it in my own books.
Often we think that only new writers have a problem using clichés, that seasoned authors have learned to express themselves more uniquely. But what I’m realizing is that it’s a trap for any writer at any point in the writing journey, because clichéd writing has more to do with laziness than ignorance.
Cliché by definition is:
1. A trite phrase or expression
2. A hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
3. Something that has become overly familiar or commonplace
When we use a cliché, usually we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough to do the work of finding something more original. Often we gravitate toward the commonplace because those are the ideas already in the front of our brains. They simmer there, a jumble of all of the books and stories we’ve ever read.
A book or story that smells of cliché is usually going to garner us a quick “no thanks.” In fact, if we’ve worked on our writing skills, improved our story-telling abilities, but continue to get rejections, we would be wise to consider if anything about our books hints at cliché.
What ways do writers slip into the cliché trap? And how can we push ourselves harder to go beyond the trite words and stories at the fronts of our minds to the deeper thoughts and unique expressions just waiting to be discovered?
1. Clichéd descriptions:
“Her lips were as red as roses” or “The flowers bloomed in the colors of a rainbow.” Anytime we describe something—setting, emotions, or a character—we need to use our mind’s camera to get beyond the clichéd. We have to focus on the specific details a particular character would notice while in her point of view (POV)and think of the kinds of words that character would use to describe things.
In every scene, we have to slow down and use the five senses to describe the tastes, smells, sights, touches, sounds that are unique and important to our POV character.
2. Clichéd characters:
“The hunky, macho hero who can save the world and the beautiful, but helpless damsel in distress.” It’s all too easy fill in our characters like we do the figures in a coloring book. We can dress them up, pick a hairstyle, and figure out an eye color and think we’re being unique.
But to go beyond clichéd, we have to make a concerted effort to infuse the very breath of life into them. That doesn’t come without time and effort getting to know them, their past hurts, goals, motivations, etc. For a comprehensive character worksheet you’re welcome to use the one I’ve developed.
3. Clichéd plots:
“The runaway heroine falls from her horse and is rescued by the dashing hero who just happens to be riding by.” Of course, we’ve all heard it said that there are no new plots, that every conceivable basic story line has been written numerous times in one form or another. I’m not sure if that’s really true. But the point is that most plots are probably already “discovered.”
We may not be able to re-invent the wheel, but we can however, find new, clever, and daring places to drive it. It requires us to cast aside the first, easy plot ideas we have, and instead ask questions like: What problems would hurt the character? What kinds of issues would make life more difficult for her? What surprises can I spring upon her? What winding, downhill trail can I make her stumble down—something that increases tension each step of the way?
My Summary: There are other numerous cliché traps we can fall into with our settings, themes, romances, etc. The point is that we should always be challenging ourselves to disregard what comes easy, the ideas that pop to our minds first. Instead we need work harder and search the far reaches of our brains, continually training ourselves to delve into greater depths of creativity.
I like the way Blake Snyder encourages writers to deal with clichés in Save the Cat: “You can be near the cliché, you can dance around it, you can run up to it and almost embrace it. But at the last second you must turn away. You must give it a twist.”
Are you avoiding the cliché trap? Have you done the hard work of sifting through all your ideas and finding the original ones? What else do YOU do to be creative but not clichéd?