Ah cliches…how do I hate thee…
Cliches are a toughy…they’ve lasted so long probably because of two reasons: 1) we resonate the most with these tried-and-sort-of-true sayings or 2) we’re lazy. I tend to go with the latter.
Not only do they make a story predictable, but they also show a lack of effort on the part of the writer. They can distract a reader from a story filled with otherwise fantastic prose and characters. Sometimes they’re just plain frustrating. Other times they actually inhibit the development of otherwise inventive and creative characters.
And don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s really difficult to write without them. Some are so ingrained in our conscience that we don’t even notice them as cliches or their pervasiveness in our stories. And too, there are very few new things under the sun.
However, there are plenty of ways to prevent your writing from being susceptible to cliches and their lackluster influence on a story. Your WIP is too important to allow you to use them as descriptors, motivators, or themes.
I’ve rounded up six of the most common cliches and have three tips to help you stay as far away from cliches as you absolutely can.
Six Common Cliches
Quite a lot of cliches show up in YA books, so much of this list is drawn from that genre. Don’t get me wrong I love a good dystopia with a love triangle and teenagers saving the world. But let’s be real: it gets old after you read basically the same personalities fall in love with the same boys in similar ways in similar societal circumstances. We can do so much better!
Really, truly, do I need to go into this one much? Harry Potter started many things…chosen ones, single books split into two part movies, and a world-wide obsession with wizard candy, to name a few, but oh boy that Chosen One cliche is worn out.
Not only is it predictable (have you ever read a story where the “Chosen One” fails? Probably not…somebody, quick! Write that story!), but it also leaves little room for organic character development. You only learn about your characters under the intense stress of literally having the weight of people groups or nations shoved onto their shoulders. Things like a character’s hobbies, interests, favorite books, normal people friends, hardly show up because they get sidelined by the big, scary issues of saving a country, or fulfilling a prophecy.
Do differently. Try writing a story where the main character loses his powers or the group of elders interprets the prophecy wrong and picks the wrong person to be “Chosen One”.
Teenagers saving the world.
I totally wanted to save the world and be a queen of a nation of talking animals when I was a teenager. However, now that I’m older, you’d be hard pressed to get my anywhere near politics. I’d still hang out with talking animals though…
Teenagers are a vital part of YA books for obvious reasons. However, there are plenty of other ways to have them as important characters in perhaps, more appropriate roles. No one would really trust a young king or queen, especially in this age where our life expectancy is double what is was 150 years. We live more life now than we did hundreds of years ago and the ages of 8-year-old kings and 16-year-old queens are over.
Do differently. For instance, try writing about a teenager who gets their first job as a page for the king of a struggling nation and they find a way to make a difference in their own circumstances. Or try writing about the son or daughter of the “Chosen One” and their experience growing into their own in the shadow of their parents.
Wise Elderly People
Let’s jump back to the aforementioned group of elders for a second. The literary world has seen too many old sages.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Gandalf and Dumbledore and their years and years of experience. But wisdom and advice can come from many sources, just as bad advice can come from many different sources. What would happen if Gandalf has advised Frodo to keep the ring? What if Frodo just trusted Gandalf because he was old, not because he was wise? Disaster.
Well, more disaster than ending up on Mount Doom almost dead…
Do differently. Instead of having a medicine man or an elderly witch set your main character on their journey, try their sibling, their young aunt or uncle, or a teacher. Ever heard the phrase “wise beyond your years”? Use that to your advantage and create a character that surprises not only your main character but your readers with emotional depth and wisdom, despite a younger age.
Shallow and Quick Romance
I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of seeing the same romances over and over again. Romances based on how electric a kiss is, or whether or not someone (who, in many books, had never spoken to the MC before) saves their life.
Love is based on so much more. Strong love, love that truly stands every test, is based on friendship, trust built over time and shared values and goals. Kissing is a great bonus, sure, but I’d love to see truly deep romances in stories.
Do differently. Let’s see the couple who has been together for ages rather than the new love. Write the story of a couple separated by circumstances and their loyalty to each other. Write about the depth of a true love, rather than the start of one.
Why do female characters always get described as smelling like vanilla/cinnamon/strawberries/flowers? Is that all we smell like?
I don’t know about you, but my husband doesn’t go around telling me I smell like fresh flowers. Let’s come up with different adjectives, shall we?
As well, we always describe heartbreak in the same terms: we get broken, we get burned, we get ripped to pieces, we’re drowning. While all very apt descriptions, there are stronger, more intentional ways to describe a character’s undoing that will tug your reader’s heartstrings even more.
Do differently and consult a dictionary. Use different words to describe scent and sound and sight! Describe intense and difficult emotion in a new way, to really get your readers empathizing with your characters.
I used to love similes. Cool as a cucumber. Sweet as strawberries. Red as blood. Dark as night.
And then I started reading the same similes over and over and over and over and over again. They work in fairytales. But dear goodness, find new things to compare with!
Or do differently and stay away from them all together. Similes on their own consistently verge close to sounding like cliches. And sometimes changing the comparisons makes them sound silly, rather than ingenious. Stay from the cliche and use broader forms of description. Red can be described in so many more ways than blood.
Now to get rid of those pesky cliches…
Top Tips to Rid Your Story of Cliches
- Use www.thesaurus.com and www.dictionary.com…or the actual books – there are few resources better than a dictionary or a thesaurus. Use synonyms to your hearts content and get away from the words and phrases that every writer has written before.
- Have your beta readers be particularly hard when it comes to cliches in your work – there’s nothing quite like an outside eye to help you spot tired cliches and simple phrases that you can improve to make your WIP even better.
- Create your own cliche cheat sheet – when you catch yourself using a cliche, come to a good stopping point in your reading and write it down. Then brainstorm alternative phrases, words, etc, to convey the same thought or emotion but without cliche. You can keep this cheat sheet as a reference to help you limit cliches in your writing and set you apart as a true original.
How do you combat cliches? What are your favorites or least favorites?