When you think about clichés this way, it becomes something a minefield. So not only does the aspiring author or screenwriter need to step around phrases like “launched to her feet” or “Jumping down his throat”, but also tired archetypes as well. Wise old mentors, orphaned heroes, snarky sidekick…the list goes on.
But clichés have not always been, well, clichés. Once upon a time, they were new ideas that presented something original to the table. The phrase ‘jumping down his throat’ is overused these days but there would’ve been a time when it was fresh and brilliant. So brilliant, on fact, that everybody else piled on the bandwagon and consigned it to the cliché pile. Even now we are inventing new clichés: the idea of movie trailers using the famous inception-style ‘BWAAA!’ music is very recent, and while vampire romance didn’t start with twilight it certainly catalysed the saturation of the market that has smeared the concept with cliché.
I think cliché are the result of a great paradox in the human psyche. We’re naturally inclined to be inspired by success, and even want to break off a piece of it and use it for ourselves, sometimes for a sweet-natured homage or for a more cynical copy-paste job. And yet we’re also turned off by things that are too successful or ubiquitous: how many of us gain a sense of grim pleasure from seeing a high-profile celebrity be brought down a peg or two? Or to see an all-conquering sports team laid low by a plucky underdog? Terms like schadenfreude and tall-poppy syndrome exist for a reason. The sweet spot between breakout idea and overused cliché is narrow.
But are clichés really that bad? I have read a few examples of novels that make a concerted effort to be anti- cliché, to avoid all the tropes in the book. And while the intention is good and some clever ideas came from it, ironically the spectre of cliché looms larger over these creations than any other: for example, while Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is a fantastic book, there are simply too many times where the author takes a moment to set the stage for a ‘see? I bet you were expecting a clichéd thing to happen here!’ moment. A big deal is made out of the idea that Kvothe thnks one of the insane professors at the University might be a genius hiding his intellect, until a singular moment reveals that, nope, he really is just insane. Now you might be thinking that’s quite a clever idea, but nothing came from this discovery of the professor’s true nature, in terms of plot development. It served only to prove it’s own point: that the audience were expecting a cliché. And this happens over and over through the book. It’s like your prankster friend who keeps trying to jump scare you: the first time might be effective and funny, but it quickly becomes tiresome and grates with the audience who feel they’re just being toyed with. Rothfuss gets away with it because the core of the story is still strong, but he does push his luck.
Game of Thrones is the way to go when it comes to anti-cliché. That series not only subverts expectations, but it does it in ways that may sense to the plot, fits the characters and fits into the narrative rather than trying to prove a point. The death of a certain character towards the end of the first book/series is shocking, but George RR Martin isn’t simply playing for shock value, but because it makes sense to the story he wants to tell.
And lets not get too hateful of clichés here: clichés didn’t become as widespread as they are today by accident: they achieved saturation for a reason. They could’ve been a very effective simile, or a clever twist in the tale. So no matter how overused a cliché becomes, the kernel of the idea or turn of phrase remains a good one. So as a writer, one shouldn’t be scared of clichés – they are worn and tired, like an old pair of shoes, but like an old pair of shoes they also fit in snugly and don’t distract. If you find yourself trying to avoid a cliché and trying to write a clever workaround, don’t: it’s more hassle than its worth, and chances are that you’ll only produce something jarring. Breaking out of clichés and going against the grain should come naturally and fit into the story.
Readers want an experience, not an experiment. Clever new ideas are appreciated, but clichés shouldn’t be as feared as they are. Good storytelling comes first, going against the grain comes second.