Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 14, 2023

Making Clichés Work for You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Closeup image of a calendar with and fingertips holding the end of pen. One day in the center of the image is filled with cross-hatched lines in light blue and brown with the words "Clichè Day" in the center of it.

Clichés aren’t necessarily bad—they’re just not original.

One of my favorite writing T-shirts says “I avoid clichés like the plague.” But clichés are so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that it’s hard to eliminate them completely from our writing. For me, the more casual the situation, the more often I use them. For example, you’ll see me use them a lot more in blog posts versus my novels.

Clichés are not bad. They’re cultural shorthand to convey an idea.

However, it’s this ease of communication that makes them undesirable in our writing.

We’re writers. We’re supposed to be original. Using something that’s been used "for ages" is taking the lazy way out and making the reader do the work. Even worse, because clichés are so culturally known, readers aren’t surprised by them. How many TV/movie plots have you ever figured out right away because of the clichés used? I’d guess a lot.

But you can make clichés work for you instead of against you.

I had a WIP with a director of security type position and a second-in-command guy. It’s a cliché that both these roles are often filled by a character who’s up to no good—the guy in charge of your security is secretly working against you. Your second-in-command is trying to do you in and take over. No matter what the genre, this role is frequently where the bad guy hides.

Obviously, I didn’t want to make either of these guys a bad guy. Readers would see that coming without even having to look up.

But since I know readers will expect them to be bad guys, it lets me play with those expectations. I can twist the cliché and have my characters behave in ways that could easily be interpreted as helpful or hurtful and let the reader assume the wrong thing. I can play into those expectations and later yank the rug out from under readers when they realize those actions weren’t the actions of a villain.

Take a known cliché and twist it.

Years ago, I read a book called Villains By Necessity by Eve Forward. Forward took the tried-and-true “good vs evil” cliché and turned it on its head. The good guys have won, evil is gone, but it hasn’t turned out exactly as all the fairy tales said it would. The world is unbalanced now, and that’s causing trouble. A group realizes that the world needs a little evil, and to save it, they have to turn into bad guys. The “villains” have to save the world. What a great twist!

My own novel The Shifter developed this way as well. I was playing with various fantasy clichés, trying to find a different angle on my idea. I ended up focusing on healing, and realized that you never saw it used for evil. There were rarely any consequences to it at all. I wondered, “What if healing could be bad? What if it could be harmful?” And thus, the book was born.

If you have a clichéd idea, opening, or character, try looking at how you can make that cliché different.

Can you do the opposite of what’s expected?

Can you make it positive if it’s a negative? Negative if it’s a positive? (As in, if the cliché is always for the good guy can you give it to the bad guy, and vice versa?)

Is there something that hasn’t been done with it already? Can you:

  • Change the gender?
  • Change the age?
  • Change the species?
  • Change the genre?
  • Change the tone?
  • Change the format?

Let’s look at one of the more common clichés: Describing a character by looking in the mirror.

Photograph of a man with a scruffy beard and wearing a pullon knit cap, and a jacket looking in to a mirror with his reflection being of a clean-shaven, buzz-cut young man in a nice gray suit with gold cufflinks and adjusting his pale yellow tie.

How many times have you heard “Don’t have your character look in a mirror to describe themselves.” It’s good advice, but what if your book absolutely needs to do this?

Then twist the cliché.

First, look at how and why this cliché is typically used:

  • It’s the easiest way for a writer to describe their point of view character.
  • Studying yourself in the mirror is something we all do.
  • It’s easy to get in the descriptive details.

Next, ask yourself why this cliché has to be used:

  • What about looking in that mirror is critical to the story?
  • Why can’t you describe the character in another way?
  • What does looking in the mirror gain you that nothing else can accomplish?

Now, let’s look at my “ways to twist a cliche” list and see what we can come up with:

Can you do the opposite of what’s expected?

You expect to see the person, so what if they have no reflection? What if they remember what they can no longer see? What if they go out of their way to avoid looking into mirrors? What if it’s someone else looking at them as they look into the mirror?

Can you make it positive if it’s a negative?

What if they have something they didn’t have before? Their appearance changed in a way that’s intriguing.

Negative if it’s a positive?

What if they see something they don’t want to see? What if they’re always looking into mirrors because they need to constantly watch behind them? What if they’re waiting for something bad to show up in their reflection?

Naturally, the story will dictate which direction you go with this, but you can already see how a little brainstorming has opened up several ideas.

Unsure if what you’re doing is a cliché or not?

Wander through TV Tropes, one of the most comprehensive cliché databases I’ve ever seen. It covers all the common plots, tricks, and clichés and gives you plenty of examples. It covers books, TV, comics, and movies, so don’t let the name fool you.

Clichés come with expectations. Defy those expectations, and your cliché can become more than cultural short hand.

What clichés do you struggle with? Does your WIP use any? Are they working or not working?

* * * * * *

About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

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21 comments on “Making Clichés Work for You”

    1. Isn't it fun? Mental Floss used to have a ton of shirts, but I don't know if they do that anymore. The site has changed a lot.

    1. Thanks! Clichés are so common, I think we often just read over them. But they stick with us subconsciously.

  1. Thanks for having me! Let's talk about our favorite and least favorite clichés 🙂

    My favorite is when something is "half the battle." Always makes me laugh and think of the movie, "The Untouchables."

    My least favorite is tripping and falling when someone is chasing you. That and "released a breath she didn't know she was holding."

  2. Hi Janice!

    Wonderful post. I love your definition of clichés.

    The hubby reads my chapters as I write them and typically finds the clichés. They come so naturally that I generally don't realize they're in the mix.

    That link will be super helpful.
    Thanks!

    1. Thank you! That's the "problem" with clichés--we just use them automatically. That's awesome you have your very own cliché finder 🙂

      TVTropes is great, but you can totally get lost in there for hours (grin).

  3. Brilliant. It's something I think I need to try.
    Looking in a mirror is something I used in a short story. The MV noticed the changes that age had brought about. This was the basis of the story.
    I love your ideas, though. Much food for thought.

      1. Thanks! That's a reasonable reason to look in the mirror, so I think that works. And it carries more weight than just a pause to describe the character. It triggered deeper reflection.

  4. Thanks for the reminders about clichés, Janice. I don't know if I have a favorite one, but the one I hope is true is "every cloud has a silver lining." And the one that makes me laugh is "grab the bull by the horns." I doubt the sanity of anyone who does that. lol

    1. Oh, I like that one as a life philosophy 🙂 And I agree, grabbing a bull by anything just sounds like a bad idea all around, lol.

  5. I’ve had an aversion to clichés and tropes, which has translated, in my writing, into a deliberate upending of all such in my stories.

    My genre is SciFi, which is rife with tropes. So, in my “alien invasion” story (a series), my alien aren’t monstrous looking, ruthless, warlike aggressors, who just show up and attack. They’re rather attractive creatures, vaguely resembling gazelles, who’ve studied us a few centuries, and show up wanting to negotiate our ‘beneficial’ surrender. They don’t see themselves as conquerors… in their heart and soul, they’re farmers, albeit self-superior, condescending, feudalistic, and imperialistic farmers.

    I similarly like twisting memes and clichés in my chapter titles, which I use to provide humorous clue of what readers will find within-e.g., Let Lying Dogs Sleep, Paychecks and Balances, A Tale of Two Videos, Rules of Disengagement, Leaks of Faith, etc.

    I’ve always been a fan of Asimov, who managed to provide stunning twists at key moments in his stories, which readers could immediately see were quite logical, because he’d so well foreshadowed the possibilities.

    1. Love that. Flipping tropes and clichés around is so much fun. We clearly have the same sense of humor (grin). I also love the wordplay and puns like your titles, and have novel ideas with titles along those same lines. Those are also always the types of titles that draw my eye in a bookstore. I recently re-bought and re-read all the Phule's Company books, and every title is like that.

    1. It certainly plays into their expectations, and then you can defy those expectations 🙂 Tons of fun. Bwahaha.

  6. I'm constantly playing with clichés and memes in my work. I particularly enjoy twisting them in chapter titles, which I use to give readers a tease of what's within (and is immensely helpful to me when I need to look for a previous scene). Some... Truth and Promises, Let Lying Dogs Sleep, Braking and Entering, Paychecks and Balances, Espionage on Ice...

    And, for fun,

    Yet ironically, for most tastes, their story was bland. Even K’laadia’s oppression of indigenous species was slow and subtle, almost imperceptible until too late. As invaders go, K’laadians were boring, but with little effort, had always won.

    "What the holy hell, folks!" A popular web host lamented. "Where are the bug-eyed, drooling, fang-toothed, nasty, vicious Hollywood-styled aliens? We get invaded by farmers? Effing FARMERS? Dammit! I'm effing embarrassed. No wonder they've beaten everyone else so far. Who the HELL could see that coming? Yeah, I'm embarrassed."

    1. That's a great way to use them. I love that.

      LOL great passage. A funny way to twist the alien BEM tope 🙂

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