By Merriam-Webster’s definition, a cliche is “a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting”; “something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective.” So, essentially, we are given three major categories of cliche: the phrase, the theme, and the prop.
This definition applies to the way we commonly think of cliches, as a phrase or expression that has simply lost meaning through its frequent application. Truthfully, though, a lot of cliches do still contain meaning. The problem is, they also demonstrate tired thinking.
I may completely understand what you mean when you tell me delving into the subject is opening a whole new can of worms. The ideas will come wiggling and squirming out in all different directions and it will be a long time before we can capture all the slimy creatures much less get them all sealed back inside the can again. It makes perfect sense and it does contain meaning.
However, I’ve heard the phrase so often that I don’t actually get the image in my head anymore of the consequences of opening that can. Instead, I roll my eyes, look at you skeptically, and insist on pursuing that line of thought anyway. Clearly, you are not the best judge of what my mind can handle.
A cliched theme could be the Happily Ever After of storybooks or the standard hero’s journey – a call to action, the tests and trials, the near-failure or mini-death, and the rebirth into success and fame. We’ve seen these themes so often that we can recite to you what will happen without ever having read the book. While they remain archetypal plots within our culture, we have become bored with them to the point that we no longer pay attention.
The problem here is that there are only so many basic plots for writers to choose from. According to Christopher Booker, there are only seven while others, such as the Tennessee Screenwriting Association, may argue there are as many as 20. If all the stories through all the world through all of recorded history have revolved around these 7 or 20 themes, how on earth are we to come up with something special?
This could be a specific term, like Awesome!, or an actual prop, like a sword in a stone that only one can handle. Again, the idea is considered to be so familiar and universally understood that it needs no interpretation. We know what to expect and we are no longer amazed by it. What was once magical and original is now commonplace and missing its sparkle. But using these props is one way that we, as writers, are able to shortcut chapters’ worth of explanation to get to the story we want to tell.
Attempting the Impossible
In reality, it seems impossible to avoid the cliche in one form or another and I’ve met plenty of authors stuck in permanent writer’s block because of the ‘rule’ that we must avoid them. What is a writer to do?
A little-known fact about cliches is that they hate attention. They thrive in the shadows, but when you invite them in, they quickly run away. Go ahead and try to think up a cliche that indicates there are too many of something. It might have been on the tip of your tongue a moment ago, but now that you actually want it, it’s gone.
The trick of cliches is not to avoid them, but to invite them in, play with them for a while, and see what kinds of twists you can come up with when you allow them to play with each other. For a quality example of this technique of taking the cliche and making it your own, take a look at Angst by David J. Pedersen.