So I spend a lot of time on writing forums (it’s nice to be around people who are the same brand of crazy I am), and lately I’ve noticed a lot of people asking questions about avoiding clichés in things from characters to backstories to endings to plot points. It’s to be expected, I suppose. Use of clichés is more or less considered a cardinal sin of writing in the community—use them too freely, and an author can expect to be condemned and have his or her reputation burned at the stake.
|Well, at least it won't be molested by dirty old men beforehand.|
Regardless, I still found myself handing out the same piece of advice: don’t worry about it.
Now hold on a minute before you take up your torches and pitchforks and let me explain. I hate the “I-am-your-fathers” and the “it-all-turned-out-to-be-a-dreams” as much as the next person, but most of these people weren’t inquiring about such obvious situations. One writer wanted a backstory for her shapeshifters but couldn’t come up with something that hadn’t been done. Another wanted to know if it was too cliché to have her heroine fall for a supernatural being in her para-romance novel. These are not clichés. The former is mythology, and the latter is the basic foundation of a genre.
There is a widespread misconception about what a cliché is, and therein lies the reason for my advice. A cliché is defined as any “phrase, motif, trope, or other element within an artistic work that has become common enough to be seen as predictable, tired, overused, and generally unfavorable”—in short, it weakens the work.
“Weakens” is the keyword here. Have love triangles been done before? More times than a Las Vegas prostitute, I assure you. Does that mean that the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is cliché? Not at all. At the very least, I’ve never read another book about children fighting to the death for the entertainment of the aristocracy and a girl having to pretend to fall for a guy to please the crowd but then actually falling for him though she is developing feelings for her childhood friend. Just saying.
|Plus there's that twist at the end where it turns out the entire thing |
was a commercial for Verizon Wireless — more bars in more places.
My point is that it doesn’t matter if an element of your story has been done before. These are just tropes, or any plot, character, setting, device, or pattern that we recognize as such. Clichés are just tropes that are done badly. Tropes themselves are actually often pleasant to encounter in literature, like meeting an old friend. In fact, tropes play a large role in determining our literary preferences.
A character getting stuck in a videogame and having to play their way out is a trope. It also happens to be one of my favorite plot foundations (yes, I’m lame like that), and I’ve read a ton of them and can truthfully tell you that they’re not all the same. There are so many ways to make a story different, so many more elements than just the one or two that you’re worried about. Cornbread and cake both require eggs, but the end result is very different. The same is true of using tropes. There are wonderful things you can do with them — you just have to do them well.
And that is what writers need to focus on. If a story is good, if the writing is sound, if the action is well paced, if the characters are compelling, if the twists are indeed twists, who cares if the story involves a love triangle or a teenager being the only one who can save the world. At the end of the day, people just want a good story that’s not a carbon copy of the others they’ve read. So grab your eggs and whatever other ingredients you come up with and get to work whipping up something tasty for the masses.
In the fabricated words of Queen Marie-Antoinette, let them eat cake—and cornbread, and cookies, and fried rice, and omelets.