Clichés are usually defined as hackneyed ideas or overused elements that fail to surprise anyone. At the time of writing, there are three places where we can find clichés – metaphors, characters, and plots.
Writers often resort to metaphors when they need to set their stories or introduce a description. There is nothing like a good comparison to give the reader an accurate mental picture of what you want to express. This is not a simple task since the image you create should be original and natural at the same time. This way, it will easily form in your readers’ minds without them having to stop reading to reflect on it. After all, the function of metaphors is to facilitate the understanding of the story.
On the other hand, if you resort to clichés (e.g. Her smile dazzled me. Her teeth were like pearls!), your readers will understand what you mean, but the expression is so overused that it won’t have much impact and meaning. The words won’t turn into mental images, and your readers won’t see the woman’s dazzling smile in their minds. In order to keep that from happening, remember one of the main writing rules, “Show, don’t tell.”
First of all, you must know there are two types of characters – archetypes and stereotypes.
Archetypes are patterns. They are basic characterization models from which to build well-defined characters that have the ability to travel across cultures without losing their attractiveness. Hercules, Don Quixote, and Luke Skywalker are archetypes; Star Wars is full of archetypes, and so is The Lord of the Rings. Consider Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Faramir, Éowyn, etc. All of them are based on archetypes, but they also have personal characteristics that make them unique. Being archetypical makes their motivations universal, and this is why they have such a good, cross-cultural reception.
On the other hand, stereotypical characters are flat and commonplace. Their contribution to the story is not interesting. As Robert McKee states in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, “a stereotypical story … suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities.”
To finish up this section, be careful not to turn archetypes into stereotypes (this can happen if you choose very archetypical characters without providing them with individuality) unless your intention is to transpose the story surrounding your characters to a totally unusual period or setting.
This is perhaps the trickiest place to avoid clichés since it’s not easy to know when you are (or are not) being original. The only strategies you can resort to are self-criticism and intuition; you don’t have to develop very intricate stories, but you should stay away from predictable plots.
If you fail to manage clichés when you are creating the, your readers will see a mile off what’s going to happen next, and that will make them want to stop reading. That’s the worst thing that can happen to us as writers!
Where You CAN Resort to Clichés
Now that we’ve analyzed where it’s easy to fall into clichés and how you can avoid them, let’s see in which cases you can use them.
1. First Draft – When you’re writing the first draft of your text, the best thing you can do is not be obsessed with clichés, at least not with those that can appear when you use metaphors (clichés in plots and characters should have already been taken care of in the planning stage of your text).
If you focus on creating complex descriptions during the first draft, you aren’t going to move forward. This stage is for writing without stopping to think too much. If you to put “her teeth were like pearls,” then do it. You’ll have plenty of time for revising later.
2. Dialogue – Sometimes you can use clichés in dialogues. After all, conventional expressions are used every day, and not all your characters have to be witty. Indeed, you can use clichés to make them more ordinary and familiar. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when all the characters in a story have fantastic and original answers for everything. It’s not realistic, and it spoils the story.
For example, the moments I enjoy the most in the film The Big Sleep are the dialogues between Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). Apart from the chemistry between them, both characters are very clever and challenge each other in a dialectical duel. But the conversations they keep with the rest of the characters lack that level of subtlety, and that makes the relationship of the two protagonists even more special.
3. Comedy and Parody – Clichés are effective in the humorous genre even though it’s also easy to be commonplace instead of funny. When you resort to clichés to make a joke, you have to give them a twist by adding new elements that make them original and comical. It’s not easy, I know; but if there’s no challenge, it loses its fun!
4. Plot – In this case, you can use a cliché as a starting point to then give it an unexpected twist. This will catch your readers by surprise and make their reading more enjoyable. Nevertheless, be careful with this technique, as you are taking two risks. On one hand, the twist must make sense. There must be a good reason for it to be there. On the other hand, your story must contain elements that keep your readers engaged. If nothing holds their attention before you have introduced the plot twist, they’ll get bored, and they won’t continue reading your story.