Words that every writer hates to hear. Part of our job is to create something fresh and new. Clichés can be an indication of stale writing but are also an invaluable tool in the writer's toolbox. Most writing guru's will tell you to avoid clichés. To cut them out of your writing without a backward glance. But, clichés have their place in a writer's toolbox.
Let's discuss for a second the difference between tropes and clichés. Tropes are not clichés. Tropes are the bones that make up every story. The Hero's Journey is a commonly used trope. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and many others use The Hero's Journey as the skeleton on which they build the story. Tropes can become clichés if the writer fails to add flesh to the skeleton and make the story unique. Tropes like clichés are tools, and every writer should learn when and how to use both.
How and when are cliches appropriate to use?
1. Clichés can create character/narrator voice.
The writer's job is to write the story and get out of the way of the character/narrator and that character’s individual voice. Every story should have a unique voice regardless of the writer. Idioms and cliché phrases are a part of everyday language. Use these to lend authenticity to your character's voice. The closer the point of view, the more these phrases will creep into the internal language of the character. Let them. They add flavor and color.
You do need to be careful not to be too heavy-handed. Like salt in cooking, the right amount enhances flavor, but too much and the dish becomes inedible
Example 1: They say every cat has nine lives, but Lucky had been born missing a few. From his notched ear to his patchy fur, it was apparent that he'd used up a few of those lives. Lucky licked a paw and stared with one eye at the interloper. He might just use up his last two getting rid of the mangy mongrel.
Example 2: Ain't no business like show business. Patches the clown stared at the bloody clumps in the sawdust. Sometimes, it could be deadly. "The show must go on," he muttered as he straightened his over-sized polka-dot tie. He flipped open the curtain, plastered on a bright smile, and squeaked his horn. The crowd cheered as eight more clowns emerged from various parts of the tent, oblivious to the fact that one was conspicuously absent.
2. Clichés can convey an idea or emotion quickly.
While it's a good idea to avoid using overly common phrases to convey emotions, sometimes there's not a reasonable substitute. For instance, you have a character that's walking down a dark, scary hall. His heart is pounding. His palms are sweating. The hair on the back his neck is standing on end. All are considered clichéd reactions because they are used so often. But, they are legitimate physical reactions. How do you make them less cliché? It’s all about context.
Example 1: To the casual observer, the door looked completely ordinary: faded wood with a brass knob. His heart beat a staccato rhythm that echoed in his ears. Thump thump. Thump thump. The dim shadows of the corridor closed around him, and the hair on the back of his neck rose in response. He could do this. He had to. He wiped his hand on pants before he grabbed the knob and twisted. What would the door reveal this time?
Example 2: My hands ball up at my sides. Red is hardly a gentleman. Calling him that is an insult to every man that carries even the smallest shred of dignity and honor. Red swaggers by Jacquie. A flutter in my gut is followed closely by hot anger. Red’s a handsome man, and he knows it. Those auburn curls, bright green eyes, and that wicked smile have set many women’s hearts on fire. Not mine. Not anymore.
3. Clichés can add humor.
They can become punchlines. The mustache twirling villain who laughs maniacally while tying the hero to the railroads tracks only to discover the tracks belong to a toy train. Many cartoons use clichés to great effect. Watch Wile E. Coyote try to catch the Roadrunner. No matter how many times the anvil drops—and you know it’s coming—it's still funny. But like character voice, you have to be careful not to over-seed your work.
Example 1: A ball of twisted metal on the coffee table grabs my attention. It’s covered with runes carved on each warped wire. Magic tingles against my palm when I reach for it, and I leave the thing alone before it zaps me. Curiosity killed the cat, and I plan to live a long life.
Example 2: An idle mind is the devil’s playground, and if that’s the truth then I must be the devil himself. Ain’t nothing better than whiling the day away on a shady bank by the river. I spin yarns for my little brother as the fish nibble at our lines. Mama calls us in for supper and asks what we’ve been up to. “Fishing,” we say, cause we know that the devil’s surely in us if we admit to doing nothing.
Now, let's talk characters. Characters can slip into the cliché when a writer uses a trope and fails to go deeper. Stock character tropes occur in every story. The plucky sidekick. The cynical private investigator. The orphaned farmboy. Every genre has stock tropes it uses. It ventures into cliché territory when the writer fails to give the character real flaws and a real backstory. Stereotypes tend to fall into the cliché category as well, only more offensive. Give your characters real traits and flaws. Dig deep into their psyche and make them real people.
Tropes and clichés occur in every story. Even the most well-praised authors have a few clichés tucked away in their stories. While we should strive to keep our writing fresh, we also have to remember that story is king. We need to use the best tools to tell our story and sometimes that includes a few well-placed clichés.