Avoid clichés like the plague. That’s what we’re always told, right? (That, and never submit stories in Comic Sans font, but who really listens to that one?) But surely clichés can’t always be bad, can they? Are there times when clichés would be appropriate and right?
But first, what the heck is a cliché? (Okay, I’ll ease off on the endless questions now, sorry.)
A cliché is a phrase or idea that was once fresh and innovative, leading to its broad distribution and popularity, but that has since become so overused as to become boring, predictable, or even annoying. While the pre-cliché expression is witty and clever, that same expression post-cliché is often viewed as dull and lazy. Sometimes clichés will even lose their original context and just become a meaningless response to be trotted out following the appropriate stimulus. (Think, “The whole nine yards.” Like, we all know what that means, but what was the framework for why it means that?)
Clichés shouldn’t be confused with stereotypes (a set of attributes that people ascribe to a group at large), truisms (a widely accepted or self-evident ‘fact’, often seen as so obvious as to negate the need for definition or proof), or formal expressions (phrases used ceremonially, such as ‘I second the motion,’ or ‘I do solemnly swear…,’ etc.). There are also proverbs, idioms, and all kind so of other specifically defined phrases. While all of these things can contribute to a cliché, or be used in a cliché manner, they’re each kind of their own thing that we’re not going to get into much here.
The kinds of cliché I want to talk about today comes in two varieties: short phrases (the micro-cliché, if you will) and chains of events (the macro-cliché). And when it comes to writing a story, you want to be very, very careful with either of them. But that said, they do have their uses!
Cliché expressions are best used in establishing voice. After all, characters use clichés all the time, just like real people. Maybe they like to say things are ‘all that and a bag of chips’. Maybe they’re always rolling their eyes and ironically grumbling back their mom’s signature ‘a chip off the ol’ block’. Or maybe the time traveler from the 1920s has a tendency to cheerfully advise their friends to ‘know your onions’. Or these phrases can be tragically subverted, such as the terminally ill character encouraging their concerned family with a successively weaker and weaker ‘fit as a fiddle’.
Subversion is probably the best way to use clichéd events or situations in your storyline. Maybe the princess meets a friendly old woman who is of course a witch in disguise. How can you subvert this trope so that the story isn’t boring for your readers? Likewise, everyone expects that when your protagonist has a weird, symbolism laden dream that it’s foreshadowing something important. So how can you upend that expectation to deliver something unexpected?
When subverting a cliché, whether that’s a single phrase or a whole story trope, you’re working with two parts. The set up (which is the trope that savvy readers will see the beginning of and make assumptions about what’s coming) and the subversion (where the trope is revealed to be a red herring and now we’re going somewhere else, get in the car).
During this process, it’s important to surprise your audience, but also to not disappoint them. Yes, it would be very surprising to find out that the Chosen One completely fails in their task (and some shadowy governmental agency has to come clean up the mess and now there’s a hole in the universe that occasionally rains radioactive cheddar curds) and then the protagonist squanders the remainder of their life in drunken shame and dies while trying to fight off a ten-year-old pickpocket armed with an irradiated Army-issue spork. Surprising, sure. But your readers are going to pelt you with rotten fruit by the end of the story if you don’t pull off something better than that.
Like all other things in the story, the subversion needs to have the three S’s. It has to make sense, surprise readers, and satisfy the audience. Losing any one of those elements will sour the experience. But it you can use all three of them while turning a cliché on its head (haha, that’s a cliché), please do!
How about you guys? Can you think of any other good uses for clichés? Or any times you’ve seen them used well? Let me know in the comments below! And until next time, happy writing!