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.
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.