Twenty-Seven Examples of Ways to Bend Clichés

Although some clichés used to be powerful writing tropes, they have become trite with age, bringing as much life to your story as a dead doornail. Writers are advised to avoid clichés like the plague, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. When manipulated properly, clichés can be worth their weight in gold.27_Examples_of_Ways_to_Bend_Cliches

A cliché is anything that has been overused to exhaustion and beyond: a character (the villain garbed in black who chuckles evilly while petting his cat), a plot device (the mentor who inevitably perishes), or a phrase/description/metaphor (“deader than a doornail”) so timeworn that readers’ eyes glass over when they see it.

Why shouldn’t we throw out all hint of clichés and give our readers the unexpected? Because clichés are expected! Readers unconsciously think they know what will transpire in a story. By opening with a scenario that could become cliché and then diverting from that course, we can keep readers guessing.

In a mentor-apprentice relationship, readers will be prepared for the mentor to die, but what if the apprentice dies instead and the mentor is left to exemplify a truth that the apprentice has unwittingly taught him? Or perhaps there is a princess with an arranged marriage. Instead of running off with a stable boy or meeting the disguised prince and falling in love, suppose she commits to marry the prince and save both their kingdoms; then the bride and groom learn to love each other afterwards.

If most readers are like me, they enjoy trying to predict what will happen in a book. They are thrilled when they untangle a plot twist, and even more thrilled when the story surprises them in a logical yet unforeseen way. Clichés steer readers’ thoughts toward an anticipated end while building up to an entirely different outcome.

Clichés can also add humor—especially revamped expressions. Instead of writing “deader than a doornail,” you could say “deader than a coffin nail buried for a hundred years, rusted through, and put on display as disintegrating evidence for some ancient war.” That may be a bit extreme, but you get the idea.

With stereotypes, your options are endless. Here is a handful of bent clichés I’ve concocted or collected from others for amusement:

  • A prince and princess who agree to marry and fall in love after the wedding.
  • A dragon who is afraid of both fire and heights.
  • An apprentice who dies while rescuing his mentor. His mentor must then save the kingdom.
  • A villain with a soft heart for street boys. He donates money to raise them as upstanding citizens.
  • A sidekick who doesn’t care for food. He’d rather cook than eat.
  • A prince striving to escape an arranged marriage.
  • A hero and villain who collect stuffed animals and feud over who will control the city as well as obtain the most collector’s items.
  • An assassin who watches over the families of his victims and cares for them if they need anything.
  • A stuffy butler who dresses up as a villain at night so the protagonist can defeat him and feel he is a hero.
  • A prison convict who is an exceptional chef.
  • A prince embarking on a quest for a sword, only to discover the weapon has no power.
  • The leader of a country working with the resistance at night to overthrow his own dictatorship.
  • A dragon who adores music and kidnaps princes, letting their betrothed ransom them with a song.
  • A space pilot who can’t fly because he’s always used auto control.
  • A grandmother who is swept away into a fantasy world and uses the skills she’s gained over her lifetime to save the kingdom.
  • A prophecy that keeps changing depending on how characters act.
  • A villain who loves butterflies and grows flower gardens to attract them.
  • A soldier who knits on the bus while being transferred.
  • A young mentor teaching an older man new skills.
  • A gangster who is fond of reading.
  • A princess who enjoys sneaking out of the palace and startling her guards.
  • A grandfather who is an expert on technology and how to use it.
  • A fantasy where several characters must journey to our world and save it.
  • A rebel intellectual in a futuristic society who paints graffiti insults in Latin.
  • A person who haunts a den of ghosts.
  • A tough soldier who relishes bubble baths.
  • A villain who subjects his opponents to a series of irritating pranks instead of killing them.

These are just a few examples of how you can freshen up a story. Take a character or situation, identify any clichéd elements the audience will subconsciously notice, and use readers’ assumptions to your advantage as you twist the story to your own pleasure.

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Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legends of Light novellas and is the Kingdom Pen Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration. You can claim one of her stories for free at:
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  1. The grandmother one is the best.

  2. If I ever find need to be a rebel, I’m going to put the Latin graffiti one into action. It’s a good way of defeating the brainwashed-undereducated-homeschooler cliche :).

  3. This article is rife with story material. Some of these should appear on our writing prompts for social media. 😉

  4. I love this.

  5. Proof that this works.
    “A prince embarking on a quest for a sword, only to discover the weapon has no power.” Basically ‘Kung Fu Panda’, a fantastic movie. (Also, spoilers. Sorry.)
    I love some of these ideas. Thanks for sharing them! 😀

    • Ha, yes. I have seen that. I came up with the prompt prior to that… It made me laugh. XD

      • I so get that. My WIP has had not one, or two, but /THREE/ major plots. All of them have been discarded because they have been so parallel to blockbuster films that I hadn’t seen when I outlined them. Thank you Inception, Jason Bourne, and Arrival. I hate you all. (Okay, so actually Inception and Arrival were great films………. but that was kind of the point.)

        • Ugg, I hate it when published books steal my ideas. Or my names. XD Sometimes I keep them anyway because hey, if the idea is basic enough, anyone can use it.

  6. ‘A hero and villain who collect stuffed animals and feud over who will control the city as well as obtain the most collector’s items.’
    THIS. I need this.

  7. Wow, that’s a brilliant list!!! So many unique ideas, Hope.

  8. I love how you opened up with a bunch of cliches! 😂

  9. Would you believe that I’m already using one? XD
    This one: A villain who loves butterflies and grows flower gardens to attract them.

  10. I LOVE the grandmother one! There aren’t enough interesting stories about older adults.

  11. These are great bent cliché ideas! Now the trick is tying them all together into one series and not making it overly complicated 😉

  12. LOL. Yes. I love all of these!! Cliche bending is definitely one of my favorite things. 🙂 Great job as always, Hope!

  13. “A space pilot who can’t fly because he’s always used auto pilot”. That actually happened in the movie Planet 51 😀 Your fantastic ideas are already giving me the writing itch!

  14. In the Floors series there was a butler (or some worker) that pretended to be a villian for one of the guests at the hotel. There was a another book called The Girl in the Tower (I think) where the villian wanted to see butterflies. And in One Hundred Dresses a character uses a butterfly (they’re a villian).
    Fantasy where they journey to our world to save it. By Ted Dekkar, Circle.
    Then we go, now you can read them. 😸

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