Yep, I’m diving headfirst into that one today! If you scan the internet for like, one second, you will find hundreds of rants concerning cliches in storytelling. Today, I hope to give a different perspective. “The plot was cliche.” “The protagonist’s struggle was so cliche.” And on and on. There is a mob of movie-watching, book-reading critics out there ready to bash the brains out of your story the instant they think you’ve subscribed to that c-club. Does that sound intimidating? It does to me, especially when you consider the fact that a lot of cliches (like stereotypes) are founded in truth. So what’s an author to do? Well, today I hope to give a different perspective on cliches.
I want to start by saying that I’m as liable as anyone to roll my eyes and cry “foul” when I run across my own little cliche pet-peeve list. So don’t write me off as a cheap, buck-making, penny novelist just yet. And I think this brings up our first good point: the truth that everybody has a different list of cliches they will or will not tolerate. There tend to be some popular ones that get slammed by media figures. I guess you could say there are cliche-bashing trends, while other cliches are celebrated and well-funded. Confusing, right? Here’s a glimmer of hope for you: if a particular cliche is important to your story, or even important to you, you don’t necessarily need to cut it out just to please the masses.
As some wise pinner on Pinterest put it: “You can’t please everyone: you’re not a jar of Nutella.”
Now time for my controversial thesis:
I propose the crux of the issue behind most cliches is a lack of depth, and conversely that almost any cliche can be safely utilized when treated correctly.
Gutsy, huh? Before you start blaming me for all the teenage love triangles in popular fiction today, hear me out.
Let me move to a field where I have unquestionable expertise: my own experience.
For most of my life I’ve had lofty ambitions to master the written word and use it to tell stories that impact people and change perspectives. But where do you begin with such a lofty calling? I’m not afraid to admit that as a teenager I began with a lot of cliches. Because what are cliches? Most people would say they are overused stereotypes, simplistic representations, maybe even uninformed impressions. For example: the bad guy with a heart of gold, the woman who falls in love with her kidnapper, the ordinary person who is really prophesied to save the world. The truth of reality is that people who do bad things often have a lot of darkness inside of them. The truth of reality is that the woman who falls for a man who kidnapped her is in an unhealthy relationship and probably needs some counseling. The truth of reality is there is rarely anything one person can do that would actually save the world from its problems.
The interesting thing about each of these cliches is there was a time when they had never been heard before and introducing them brought fresh perspective. It’s also true that there is something interesting about each one. The fact that they don’t match up with our day to day reality attracts us to them. But unless the characters, events, and motivations are believable, readers will write them off as trite and unrealistic.
One of the fun things about writing is that you don’t have to stick to the daily grind of reality. In fact, I often write to transcend it. I like to use unusual situations, what ifs, and even impossible circumstances to shed new light on the character or themes of my story. I think cliches are one way to do that. Because often times authors long ago used these cliches successfully, and writers have been copying them ever since–maybe that’s why they became cliche.
The root of the problem with cliches is the root of the problem with bad writing: there is no depth and no insight. There are seven billion people in the world with seven billion different stories, and seven billion perspectives on life. There should be no cliches. In my ideal world a hundred others could use the same basic outline for their novels and produce one hundred fresh, different, insightful books. So I guess my point is this: whatever you are writing, don’t settle for the surface. Dig deep into character motivations, draw from your own unique experience, tell unusual stories, and remain true to who people are and what drives them.
But maybe I should tack this on to make myself clear: I think cliches are the shadows of real characters, and fascinating plot. If your writing is full of cliches, you may be just a breath away from a great novel.
What do you guys think? Do you have any examples of movies/books that successfully used an old cliche in a new way?