That’s the question.
The word “cliché” has many meanings. It can mean “an old idiom” or “a phrase that shows a lack of original thought”, and a cliché in literary terms is not behind any of that. The phrase “curiosity killed the cat” is a cliché, but clichés as we know them (usually) carry a negative connotation.
Imagine you’re writing a story. It’s been a fruitful day, and the words are flowing. You’ve just gotten down to the final confrontation with the main villain, and you’re staying up until 1:00 AM on a school night to wrap up that chapter. As the scene goes, the hero runs and hides behind a large object (for whatever reason). The villain, drooling with menace, comes around the corner and rubs his hands the way villains usually do. “I’ve got you now!” He exclaims giddily. “You can run but you can’t hide!”
Hold on right there: your villain has just entered a seriously cheesy cliché. The parallels with that scene and the HUNDREDS of other stories out there are painfully obvious. Clichés show a lack of careful planning, and they seem to make characters lapse into painfully obvious situations in which they look suspiciously like someone else’s story. Also, you can cliché yourself, by concocting a smart phrase that you use over and over and makes it painfully obvious to your readers that you didn’t THINK about what you were giving them.
See? I used the term “painfully obvious” three times in the last paragraph. The first time I used it, it was crisper than a fall leaf. The second time, it was redundant. The third time, it was annoying. The term “painfully obvious” is a good term, but so is “you can run but you can’t hide”. The trouble is, the latter term has been used so much in popular culture that it has become somewhat of a joke. Clichés like this exist throughout culture, and so many of them are easily adopted and used. However, every cliché will soon lose its cleverness and become cheesy.
It doesn’t have to be a line, either: many early superhero stories were AWFULLY cliched. They all consisted of the same muscular man in a bodysuit, secret identity, reoccurring sets of villains who commit generic crimes like robbing the bank, and pretty girlfriend. This set of rules was used for literally decades before the comic book industry was laughed to scorn and considered only fit for children. Then all of the comic book designers were like, “Crap! The same ole’ formula don’t work anymore! We might just have to tell a STORY!” Clichés like this can wreck a good story.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But Titus,” You say (or rather, think), “But you said that great artists STEAL! Doesn’t that include clichés?” Well, to put it bluntly, no. Cliching is not stealing, it’s merely BORROWING. You don’t STEAL it, you take your original story and add this tiny thing to it and abandon it later.
Now, tread lightly, padawan. (I’m sorry, just the word that came to my head at the time)
That being said, there are GOOD clichés that SHOULD be used. For example: ever hear of a Fantasy story where there WEREN’T Elves, dragons, goblins, or dwarves? This is a helpful cliché. It was established by my very good friend (Alas, an impersonal friendship he never saw the other end of) J.R.R. Tolkien. So many have filled his shoes (Again, with the clichés) since then, and these elements have become commonplace.
Before, however, you shout out that that’s the same thing as the superhero scenario, there’s a difference. First of all, Tolkien’s ideas were truly great, grounded in ideas like folklore and raw imagination. Very original. The cheesy early superhero comics? Cheesy from the getgo. Never were these ideas actually taken for real: the entire thing was absurd. So what you’re telling me is that a some random guy in a blue bodysuit and red tights foiled a bank robbery, led by a nefarious supervillain, at 12:30 noon? Yeah, try to get that some REAL traction. Comics were bought for a different reason, and by a much younger audience.
So yeah, choose your clichés wisely. Especially when writing dialogue, if some phrase pops into your head like an inspiration, double-check to see if it’s from somewhere else. You don’t want to accidentally put “No, I am your father” in a revelation of that sort and tick your readers off. Secondly, as another safeguard, draw as much inspiration from your original thought as possible. If you do, in fact, create a good-sounding phrase, use it ONCE. And then maybe, several chapters down the line, you use it again. You’d be surprised how easily readers can spot when you’ve used a word or phrase one too many times.
Use only the good clichés. These are hard to find, but try looking for well-known archetypes that still seem cool despite being used over and over again. Elements of fantasy are a great example. Things like credits and hyperdrives and warp drives and battlecruisers in sci-fi are great examples. If you must use something that has been many times, pick the ones that are still good despite repetition.
If you want this whole article summed up in two words, they are these: “BE ORIGINAL!”
Good luck, and happy writing!
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