Every storyteller fears it. Everyone is frustrated with it. Nobody likes it. What is it? Clichés.
When a storyteller pours his heart and soul into a story agonizing over every plot point and character flaw, the worst thing you can say to him is “that’s so clichéd.” Upon hearing these words, the storyteller drops into a haze as he wonders how his “completely original” idea can be considered cliché. The fear of including something clichéd in a story is a fear every author can relate to.
It’s a universal concern not only among storytellers, but even among the audience. They want to experience something they haven’t experienced before. They want a story that’s new and impactful. So once a story becomes clichéd, the audience feels insulted. They wanted something good, but all the storyteller did was waste their time.
Clichés need to be avoided. We must identify them and prevent them from entering any story. To do this, we must answer a foundational question. What is a cliché?
A cliché is an overused idea or expression. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase. In story, it could be a type of character or plotline. What makes a cliché a cliché is that it is overused. Anything can become a cliché. However, the path to become a cliché is gradual. It is a slow process that goes something like this:
Storytellers create original premises, plotlines or character types for their stories. Obviously, some work better than others. Over time, these effective devices stand out as surefire ways to create a great story. They are used again and again, because, much like a well-trodden path, they are the quickest and most reliable way to get to your destination. The audience doesn’t mind them, because they are relevant and impactful. Sometimes an entire genre depends on them. At this point, they become conventions: proven techniques or devices.
But every so often, the audience reaches a saturation point. Conventions become bland and cold, because the audience has seen the same one over and over again. The relevant becomes trite. The impactful becomes inept. The convention becomes a cliché.
Conventions and clichés are, therefore, opposite. One is extremely useful; the other, utterly useless. They differ in function, but not form.
One cannot tell the difference between a cliché and a convention by just examining them. After all, a cliché is just an overused convention. The only difference is their effect upon the audience. The audience’s reaction to a convention determines whether it is a cliché or not. If they don’t accept it, then it’s a cliché.
But this can be a problem.
There is no singular group of people labeled “the audience.” No, the audience is whoever experiences the story. The audience is an amorphous group of people, ever changing and shifting. The audience is, literally, anyone. Because of that, the acceptance of a convention differs. Sometimes it’s a cliché, sometimes it isn’t.
Clichés are subjective. What one person views as overdone, another considers fresh. Whether or not a convention is a cliché shifts and changes just like the audience. Of course, there are a few conventions that are universally considered clichés. But even then, there is always someone who doesn’t view the convention as a cliché. You cannot please everyone.
How must a storyteller deal with this conundrum? It’s undeniably difficult. Maybe even impossible. However, there are two steps you can take to chase away clichés.
First, do research. This isn’t something that should take up a lot of your time. It is simply discovering what is universally considered clichéd. Besides this, you have to look into the story’s respective genre. There are quite a few genres that depend on conventions. Though thoroughly used, these conventions should not be considered clichés for they are essential. Again, discovering clichés shouldn’t be a time consuming process. The list will always be incomplete. Instead, put your time and effort into the second step.
Create the story. A storyteller must create the best possible version of her story. Don’t obsess over clichés. Just grab a few proven conventions and, in good faith, run with it. Now, the best possible version might include a convention that could be considered clichéd. However, if it is truly the best possible version of that story, most of the audience will recognize its importance.
There will always be that one person (maybe more than one) who will criticize everything. That’s why clichés aren’t important. They’re subjective and, therefore, unavoidable. And that makes them unimportant. The creation of a great story is more essential than clichés. For a great story keeps the audience transfixed . . . clichés notwithstanding.