Clichés abound in movies and books. The dashing prince rescuing the helpless princess. The mentor dying and his student going on to save the world. The villain dressed in a long black cape with a pet snake on a staff. In an effort to create fresh stories, writers – and even some films nowadays – are turning old clichés on their heads to rework the story. But should clichés be avoided like the plague or can they help a writer?
A cliché, by definition, is anything which has become trite or commonplace through overuse. These can be phrases, such as ‘right as rain’ or ‘red as a cherry’. They can also be a mold fitted about a character, such as the carefree friend or the grim mentor. And, of course, there are cliché scenes: a handsome young man glimpsing a beautiful lady across a courtyard and falling desperately in love. The mentor dying. The villain telling the captured hero all his plans…
Some are a bit sickening, like falling in love at first sight. Or they can be lazy, like the villains laying out the details of their evil plots. (Don’t be offended if you have one of these scenes in your book. I’ve had them too and I’ll touch on this cliché again in a minute.) But many clichés have remained popular because they work. People connect with them or enjoy them. Who doesn’t thrill over the heroic rescue or ache for the main character as his mentor dies saving him? (Well, mentors do die a bit too often, so the emotional impact is beginning to fail. Again, more on that in a moment.)
A writer could make whole stories just using stock cliché characters and plots. Still, just because something is cliché doesn’t mean it should be abandoned out of hand. While a writer won’t want to use many, if any, clichés outright, referencing or making note of them can add freshness and humor to a story.
Give that cliche a twist!
For starters, it is amusing to take a cliché and twist it just enough that it’s recognizable, and yet different.
Keep the grim mentor, but let him make puns with a straight face to infuriate his apprentice.
Perhaps the foolish antics of the court jester covers a formal character who drop hints about his king’s table manners along with his jests.
Or maybe the new knight tries desperately to be heroic, completely fumbling the bows and formalities of rescuing his betrothed, while the demure maiden provokes her captors with irritating pranks they can’t trace back to anyone.
This is especially pleasing when done with phrases. I’ve a friend who is wonderful at this, though my mind is going blank on any specific examples. But she starts a common cliché phrase the normal way, then twists it into something completely new. Instead of ‘pale as death’, find something suiting the character, the setting, and the emotion for ‘pale as the marshmallows he inhaled by the dozen’. Instead of ‘all’s fair in love and war’ change it to ‘all’s fair in love and the pursuit of chocolate’.
Make fun of a cliche.
Or, instead of simply freshening a cliché, you can make fun of it. This is also very amusing, both as a writer and as a reader. If something is cliché, and the character recognizes it as cliché, the possibilities are enormous. They may embrace it, or make fun of it, or use is as a starting point for other actions. ‘Well, since I’m obviously the villain and wearing black, I decided I’d better take a trip to the pet store and find an intimidating animal’ *presents hamster* *alternately presents snake, holding it as far from self as possible with thinly disguised disgust, then quickly depositing it back in its box*
And if the story is modern, characters can comment outright on cliques. “You do realize that this is the part of a movie where I, as your sidekick, would die to give you motivation to move on.”
Opening with a clichéd line or scene and then changing it halfway through can be hilarious. Like the moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Iron Man asks Ultron about something and Ultron replies with ‘I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…’ and then proceeds to attack. That is one of my favorite movie lines because yes…villains and monologing. It happens. All. The. Time. Filmmakers made fun of that in The Incredibles too when two of the heroes are reminiscing on old fights and laughing about how they’d be caught and then the villain would start monologing, giving them time to escape.
That brings me to several clichés which have lost quite a bit of their effect (on me, at least) through extreme overuse.
A villain’s monologue.
As mentioned above, there is the villain’s monologue of ‘let me tell you my evil plan since I’m going to kill you, so you’ll die without hope’. It’s so common. And it’s easy for the writer, because we can give our character and reader the information they clearly need. But it can also be lazy on our part (I’ve struggled with this too…how to give the main character the information he needs without several paragraphs of invasion plans) and sometimes is a bit ridiculous.
This isn’t to say a scene where the villain tells the character his plans can never work. But it needs to fit with the characters and the themes. Is it something the villain would really do? Does he need recognition? Is he someone who has to prove what he can do or rub it in the main character’s face? Or is he cautious and quiet? Besides, there are other ways the main characters can figure out what has happened: vague comments and orders, notes, letters… But it’s important to note that, even when a cliché works, the reader’s eyes might glaze over slightly because they’ve read it so many times already.
The death of mentors.
That’s my problem with the death of mentors. This cliché irritates me mainly because I wanted to kill the mentor of one of my own characters but I felt I couldn’t for the annoying reason that it has been done so much. Instead of portraying the heartrending emotion I wanted, I felt it would just seem normal, even boring. So I ended up killing the main character’s best friend instead, which was more difficult for everyone involved but had a deeper emotional impact.
Mentors can die in stories, but since they are generally wiser and more skilled than the main character, don’t let them die for a minor reason. Only kill them if you must. And, if you do kill them, make the scene as fresh and memorable as you can and make sure there is a valid reason for their death.
The villain’s security system.
Finally, the villain’s security is sure to be tight. He’s not going to hire inapt soldiers to guard him. Meaning, if the main character is being shot at by the guards of the high security complex he’s breaking into, he’s likely to be hit. If he’s attacked by several soldiers, he’ll have to be very good to defeat or escape them.
But back to clichés in general.
Another use is to use them as a springboard to figure out something new. Note the normal course of events and then turn the character or setting on its head. Maybe it’s the apprentice who dies and the mentor has to go save the land. Maybe it’s the dragon who rescues the prince from the princess. For every cliché, there is a surprise. And that is one of the most valuable uses of clichés; figuring out what is expected and then changing it.
Clichés are still in use nowadays because they worked. They had power. Even the ones fading from overuse can be dissected. Figure out how they pull on emotions, then build up a new idea around that grain.
Keeping clichés in mind can be very useful. But, because of how common they are, work on freshening your clichés, making fun of them, or turning them on their heads. And, in the end, you’ll get a story worth its weight in gold. Or chocolate. Or maybe even moon gems.