Clichés are great.
Not just great—they’re fantastic. When a phrase or plotline becomes so wildly popular and well-known that audiences finally get tired of hearing it, it has achieved the very definition of success.
We just have to know how to use them in a fresh way.
We all know why we shouldn’t use clichés. It’s drilled into our heads as early as high school: Always avoid clichés. Especially storytelling formulas that have been used so many thousands of times they are no longer original. The love triangle. The friend-turned-enemy. The orphaned hero.
New writers fear clichés, but experienced writers exploit them.
New writers fear clichés, but experienced writers exploit them.
We’ve all tore our hair out while desperately trying to be original, yanking clichés out of our work like weeds.
And it’s a shame.
Clichés are a powerful literary device, employed by well-beloved authors again and again. It’s time to strip away the fears, disregard the stereotypes, and learn how to use the cliché to your advantage.
The Perfect Setup
Writing is all about setup and payoff—much like sleight-of-hand. When a magician pushes a handkerchief into his left fist, he’s setting up an expectation: the handkerchief should still be there when he opens his fist. When he opens both hands and reveals the handkerchief is in neither, that’s called the payoff—an outcome that defies expectation and leaves audience members gasping in amazement.
Writers are like magicians. You create an expectation in your reader, then surprise them by defying those expectations. As soon as your reader believes something about your story, you throw in a twist that shatters their assumptions and forces them to keep reading.
The key to a stunning payoff isn’t the payoff itself—it’s all about the setup. The more time you spend building up the audience’s expectations, the better the payoff will seem. It’s not about making the biggest, baddest, most explosive surprise the world has ever seen. Even mediocre payoffs are fantastic when there’s a convincing, elaborate setup.
Since clichés are predictable, using a cliché to set up your payoff forces the audience to predict the outcome, making it easy to twist the ending and take them by surprise!
The hero is interested in a girl. But his best friend is also interested in the same girl. And the girl can’t decide which guy she likes more.
It’s a classic love triangle, used thousands of times by the best and worst authors. While beginning writers may avoid this cliché at all costs, we know better. We’re going to use it to create an expectation in our audience.
The audience thinks that this love triangle has three possible outcomes: the hero gets the girl, his best friend gets the girl, or the girl rejects both of them. And if you chose one of these payoffs, you would be accused of lazy writing (and justly so).
Instead, let’s draft a list of unexpected outcomes and pick the most surprising result (that still makes sense). Obviously, the outcome should fit the mood of the book—a romance novel will have a totally different payoff than a thriller.
The girl isn’t a girl at all (maybe she’s an alien!).
The hero’s best friend isn’t actually interested in the girl—he’s been forced into luring her for a sinister reason
The girl dies suddenly before either friend shares their true feelings
The girl is a secret villain who is trying to trap both the hero and his best friend
Any one of these payoffs might work. The deciding factor should always be what surprises you the most. If the payoff shocks you, it will shock your reader!
The cliché creates the setup, you twist it with a brand-new payoff, and bam—everybody gasps. They never saw that coming. They’ll be turning the page before they realize it.
Besides making perfect setups, clichés are also excellent ingredients for your entire story idea.
A seasoned chef knows that eggs, milk, and flour are still indispensable staples in the kitchen, even though they’ve been used in recipes trillions of times. That’s because they WORK.
It’s perfectly all right to take a cliché and use it to inspire your next story.
What does this look like?
Let’s look at a formula plotline that’s so effective that it’s now tired, old, and boring:
The hero is a simple farm boy/servant, but when he loses his family or guardians to a terrible disaster, he discovers through a sage mentor that he is the prophesied “chosen one” to fight evil and save the world.
So how could you possibly use this clichéd story idea to inspire something new?
Like we saw earlier, this cliché provides the perfect setup: as soon as the story opens, the reader will think they know what’s going to happen. The clock is ticking before they slap the book shut and never open it again.
So put a simple, unexpected twist on it!
I’m going to change two words in this clichéd plotline and turn it into a compelling, interesting plotline. See if you can catch it.
The hero is a simple farm boy/servant, but when he loses his family or guardians to a terrible disaster, he discovers through a sage mentor that he is the prophesied “chosen one” to fight goodness and destroy the world.
The more confident the reader is that they already know what’s going to happen, the more shocked and pleased they will be when you prove them wrong.
You can go as far as you want with this. Like I did above, you can change a single word, or you can twist it farther by altering more pieces.
The honest truth is every story is ultimately inspired by a cliché. It’s up to you whether you make the cliché work for you or not. It may seem like a minor difference—but it can catapult your story from mediocre to legendary!
Putting It to Practice
Now that you know how to use clichés properly, it’s time to put them to work. Let’s come up with an original story idea based unashamedly on a literary cliché, blasting right through all the desperate warnings and stern rebukes.
Take a literary cliché—google it if you want—and turn it into an original story idea. Take at least fifteen minutes to develop a complete paragraph describing your plot idea. Don’t let it sound like a cliché by the time you’re finished—it should have such a compelling twist that it’s no longer trite.
When you’re finished, post your results in the comments section. Remember, this is only practice, so don’t worry about inventing the best novel idea in the world. Just get your creative juices flowing and work those clichés to your advantage. And don’t forget to leave feedback for a few other practitioners!
I’ll go first, posting mine in the comments, and then I’ll stick around and comment on yours. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!