Monday, September 21, 2015

12 Tips for Handling Cliches in Writing

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Clint Johnson also talked about cliches at the LUW conference and had some great insights. I thought what he had to say was worth sharing.

First let's define what we're talking about here.

Cliche: A pattern of meaning that loses meaning through repetition rather than gaining meaning. When you see a part of the pattern, you can predict the whole, and that prediction detracts from the impact.

A couple of things to consider:
  • Patterns of any size and/or complexity can become a cliche. 
  • Believe it or not, a cliche is not defined strictly by how often it is used. It's defined by how often an audience is exposed to it. So to avoid cliches, you MUST understand your audience. 
  • Understand that we, as human beings use and gravitate toward cliches because they are associations that make sense to us. They're familiar and comforting. But of course they become a liability in our writing.
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Cycle of Cliche Formation - We'll use an obvious example: Twilight.

  1. Innovation - The first time someone associates the cliche. (Example: Twilight, the first time anyone described vampires as sparkly, unavailable romantic figures, hits the air waves).
  2. Adoption - The idea is adopted by others and begins to proliferate. (Twilight becomes more popular.)
  3. Saturation - When the cliche has reached it's limit for finding a new audience. (Everyone has read or at least heard in detail of Twilight.)
  4. Satirization - The only way to make it effective again is to make fun of it. (Vampires Suck, anyone? Also more general stuff like pop culture jokes, SNL, etc.)
  5. Rejection - It's so ubiquitous that you can't even make fun of it anymore because the jokes are old and dry, and no one wants to hear even them anymore. (This is pretty much the stage we've reached with Twilight, now. Everyone is sick of hearing about sparkly vampires.)
  6. Reinvention - Will take the cliche and do something different with it that blows people's minds and the cycle begins again. (Not sure we've reached this with vampires in general, but Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as Twilight fanfic, could qualify.)
So this is the general cycle of cliches. By knowing it, you can use it to adopt, avoid, or make good use of cliches. 

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Techniques for Avoiding Cliches:
  1. Understand the difference between a trope and a cliche. A trope should increase the experience. Because a trope has been used before, it adds to the way you use it, which is opposite of a cliche, where the prediction diminishes the impact. Example: love triangles. Really, because we're all different people depending on who we're with, what we're really asking a potential heroine to do is choose who she's going to be. So if you have well-rounded, three-dimensional characters and situations that haven't been done a million times, a love triangle is actually NOT a cliche. The idea of the love triangle becomes a trope and enhances the story. However, if the characters have been done (they just so happen to be a lot like Edward Cullen and Jacob the werewolf) or the plot/world/scenes have been done a million times, then it becomes a cliche VERY quickly.
  2. Be Specific. Specificity forces the characters, through conflict, to reveal who they are. If they feel like real people then you've been specific enough to use the trope without it being cliched. 
  3. Don't use archetypes in drafting. Only in revision. Figure out your story first, then you can go back and decide if and how you want to use any possible tropes or cliches that pop up.
Techniques for using cliches to your benefit:
  1. Repackage the cliche for an audience that hasn't been exposed to it. Example: Prior to Twilight, the only people reading vampire lit were those who liked the horror and high sexuality of Ann Rice. Vampires had never been pitched to teen girls before. And boy did that repackaging have some success.
  2. Use cliches to inform the audience about your characters. Anyone who uses a lot of cliches in their dialogue or narrative thoughts automatically comes across as having a lower IQ than those who don't. So you can use it as a character-builder.
  3. Keep in mind that the younger your audience, the more you want to use cliches. If you're writing for children, you SHOULD be using cliches. They're too young to have been overly exposed to them yet and the cliche itself will teach them about the world. 
How do you take cliches into consideration in your writing?


  1. It is a lot on how you present the cliche, especially in the case of characters. Add enough detail and make them unique and they are no longer cliches.

  2. Awesome thoughts. I've got this brain that's somewhat off center, so when I think up cliches, I usually quote them the wrong way, which makes them totally unique. I think we all do that to a degree with characters or plot, but we have to be careful not to show too many of the roots if we want to present something readers can truly enjoy, eh?

    1. Definitely. Great way to look at it. Thanks Crystal! :D