The Truth About Clichés

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about clichés. Writers are told to avoid them like the plague. They are a horribly awful very bad idea. A big no-no. Clichés are a sign of lazy writing, amateur writing, and all sorts of other writing that you’d never want to associate with.

Think of the young, orphaned, teenage protagonist who is secretly the Chosen One but doesn’t know it until an old, bearded, magical, wizard-like mentor tells him.

Think of the Super Evil Bad Guy who has a bazillion evil traits and zero good ones, who’s so evil, there’s no hope of redemption.

Think of love triangles, dark and stormy nights, ancient prophecies that always come true, and my personal favorite, quests for magical artifacts.

By the way, I am definitely guilty of most if not all of the above.

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So if you’re not supposed to use clichés, what are you supposed to do? Well, you’ve heard it before. You have to twist the cliché. Do something unexpected with it. For example, if you just have to have a Chosen One in your story, perhaps you could give your protagonist a big ego about his special status. Or maybe the Chosen One isn’t the protagonist at all.

See, agents and editors hate clichés. Readers notice them, too. They roll their eyes and might even stop reading altogether, and that’s the last thing writers want. The solution? Be original.

But that’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to go deeper. Twisting clichés is fun and entertaining, and will probably improve your writing, but there is a line that you are not allowed to cross.

People are afraid of originality.

Let me say that again, just to make sure it sinks in:

People are afraid of originality.

We live in a culture that is addicted to comfort, and can’t handle the unfamiliar. We all have our comfort zones, and we are perfectly happy staying inside them. And yet, we get tired of the same old, same old. If we still read books at all, we are absolutely terrified of anything original. Clichés are familiar, something we know. They’re tried and true, they’re safe. Comfortable. Boring, even. So when authors twist clichés, it’s a win-win. The book still holds that hint of familiarity, and yet it’s something different, something fresh.

But when the author does something completely original – well, that’s when people aren’t sure what to think. Even agents and editors shy away. That’s why J. K. Rowling got twelve rejections before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Sure, there are probably lots of clichés in the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s just that no one had done anything quite like that before. No one knew what to think. And now, twenty years later, millions of other authors have been inspired by her books.

But being original – really original – is hard work to begin with. Even if you do manage to create something amazing, you’ll have to deal with rejections and general disinterest. And I shouldn’t even mention the workload. Tolkien spent years writing The Lord of the Rings. Twelve, to be approximate. And that was just one story. Before that, he wrote The Hobbit, and before that, he was developing the language and lore of Middle-earth.

In conclusion, I highly discourage it. Don’t be original. It’s way too much work. It won’t pay off right away, if ever. Stay in your comfort zone, keep your readers in theirs, and everyone will be okay. Twist those clichés, insert plot twist or two, but don’t go crazy with your originality. Stay safe. No one wants that idea that doesn’t quite fit in with anything else.

Okay. Let me say what I came here to say.

Be brave, dear writer. Pursue things that no author has pursued before. Step out of your comfort zone. Leave behind the familiar. Write about things that scare you, terrify you even. Write about things that make you sad. Write until your tears stain your notebook. Write to embark on a journey of discovery. Write a real, honest story, not the watered-down version that people like. And when you’ve finished, take another step, perhaps the hardest step of all. Let other people read it. It will take them outside of their comfort zones, yes. But that’s good. Let them embark on this journey of discovery, too.

And don’t give up. Giving up will be the easiest path, I can guarantee you that. You may fail. But you can get up again. You can keep trying. You may get ten rejections, you may get a hundred. But you can keep writing. If it’s a story that tugs at your heart and won’t let go, God put it there in front of you for a reason, and you had better keep writing it.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) clichés?

What authors have inspired you?

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