Wednesday, July 16, 2014

CLICHÉS in Writing

Clichés work for a reason. They're universal. Familiar. Tested and reader approved. Whether on a sentence level, character level, or a plot level, clichés flourish and abound. Whether we really want to use the same thing that's been used hundreds—if not thousands—of times before is something to ponder in depth.

What are common clichés, and the pros and cons of using them?

COMMON clichés: (MC=main character)
1. MC finds out he has latent powers—which must be used to save the world.
2. MC discovers she is really the long-lost offspring to a king/millionaire/sea king/famous wizard/vampire/faery queen.
3. MC is hot and gorgeous, with great hair, toned body. Usually athletic. Never overweight.
4. In fantasy or paranormal novels, the MC or supporting character has green eyes.
5. The controversial hated/adored love triangle. The MC must choose between two characters he/she is equally drawn to.
6. The nameless character who joins a dangerous group is the first to die.
7. Grandmothers who knit and crochet, and have a parakeet for a pet.
8. Cheerleaders who are mean, bullying, and beautiful. Oh, and blonde.
9. Using the following for stereotypical comedic relief: redheads with freckles, African-Americans or other ethnic groups, short people, overweight people, the elderly, young children, and pets.
10. The butler did it. (Mystery novel Killer Extraordinaire.)

DANGERS of using clichés:
Your reader may guess your plot and potentially become bored or restless with the story. They'll feel like they've read your story a thousand times before, only with different characters. Yaaaawn. Time to go watch TV or play a video game…

People often crave variety, freshness, and the unique. Add zest to your writing by adding a surprising twist, turning a cliché on its head, or thwarting your readers' preconceived expectations. Keep them on their mental toes!

BENEFITS of using clichés:
1. Sometimes it's fun and useful to throw in a cliché when we're parodying, poking fun of "the usual." Can be accompanied by the word "proverbial," for example: "I ran around like a proverbial chicken with its head cut off."
2. We might purposely want to introduce a character who speaks in clichés. This Shows he's dull or unimaginative without Telling the reader.
3. Readers may actually like a certain predictable formula—such as in the romance genre. How many romance novels end where the guy and the girl do NOT end up together? In these cases, the skill for a writer is to present the same plot cliché in a fresh, engaging way. This is a unique challenge!
4. Love triangles spark interesting and heated discussions, in which readers take "sides" and choose their favorite character—even if the MC didn't choose that character in the book. Team Edward or Team Jacob, anyone?
5. Reading a more cliché, formulaic book can be more relaxing and less stressful. Sometimes it's enjoyable to read a more mellow book, as opposed to an "edge of your seat" type.

What's your opinion on clichés, and do you ever purposely use them?
Do you enjoy reading about a love triangles, or are you TIRED of seeing them?
What's a book you've read where the author totally broke away from plot or character clichés? 


  1. you covered a ton of cliches! I hadn't thought about the scenerios as cliche but you are right. I always thought of phrases. I must watch that in my stories!!

  2. Hi Carol. I do purposely have my characters speak in cliches, because we use them in everyday life. When I'm teaching English to my students from overseas, I purposely use them, along with idioms, because the people they speak to use them. They are well-worn cliches or idioms, because they really say something succinctly. I don't get the whole frown thing about cliches, but as I write romance novels, cliches are a big part of what I do. Like adverbs, adjectives, narrative and telling, cliches are often present in best sellers. I wonder why?



  3. Great post! I am guilty of using some of the fantasy clichés, like #1/#2. I've heard there are more redheads in fiction than real life. :)
    I think for me, the one I really have to work on is using clichés for describing emotions/internal thoughts. There's so many clichés to avoid (heart beat fast, etc.) that it's always hard for me to find new ways to say those things.

  4. I have to admit, I still enjoy the love triangle. Green eyes, however drive me crazy. Enough with the green eyes already!!!

  5. I've seen these cliches around for a long time. As long as an author makes them fresh and interesting, I don't mind.

  6. There was a list of middle grade cliches in the SCBWI newsletter a while back and I was surprised how many were true. The girl whose younger sister is more popular/prettier, the 13-year-old who is the only person she knows who doesn't have a cell phone...things like that. It was all such random stuff, there was no real reason for it, but I'm amazed how much of it was true. And, yes, almost everything on the list is something I've either done or probably would do!

  7. The nameless character who dies is just like Star Trek and the red shirt.

    I didn't realize green eyes was cliche. I have green eyes and it's so rare to find someone else with that eye color, so I certainly don't mind it.

  8. The trick to using cliches is to make them fresh - like the love triangle. Something that would engage readers. (I'm not much for green eyed stereotypes!)

  9. I didn't realize green eyes was cliche either. I use green eyes sometimes for characters (usually because I have them too!) :)

  10. Aww, I like that grandmothers who knit one :-)
    But wait, what about a grandmother who kept an aviary and then the granddaughter inherits it? I don't think there's a parakeet in there, just a lot of finches and doves and a budgie...


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