Simply put clichés can make a bad book. So how do we avoid them? I feel there are two kinds of clichés. The first are general theme clichés, tropes that have been overdone and plotlines that are carbon copied from one book to the next. The second kind of cliché is the overused phrase.
Can all clichés be avoided? Or, is it possible that “it’s all been done before,” I wonder if possibly nothing is 100% original. However, that doesn’t mean a story can’t be different and intriguing in its own way even if the elements have been done before. Those elements can still come together differently. Common romance novel clichés for example include: virgin women, love triangles, bad boys, characters attracted to one another for no reason, much older men dating young women, and the couple hating each other so much they end up ripping each other’s clothes off.
The problem is can you write a romance novel without using any of these? Can you write a paranormal novel without having vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or people with special abilities; or a science fiction novel that doesn’t have aliens, robots, or a dystopian future? Probably not. To some extent the clichés are what make certain types of stories what they are. What I think the problem really is, is not if there is a cliché in your story, because let’s face it. It’s hard to avoid all of them if not impossible, but more so that you avoid as many of them as possible. The virgin heroine who ends up in a love triangle with two bad boys, who are twice her age bit, has been done to death. I would say the” less is better” rule applies here. Don’t write a book you’ve already read. Furthermore, if your story does have a cliché make sure it’s done well; it should make sense and fit with the purpose of the story. Good writing and interesting characters can make up for the use of a cliché.
For example in “Into the Deep,” a Paranormal Romance, I do have a few clichés. For one my main character is a virgin, but she is also seventeen and so this cliché fits. It also isn’t an important part of the story, in fact is barely mentioned. This cliché is balanced by the fact that I avoided most other clichés. There isn’t a love triangle; the guy she ends up falling for is her age, ect… I also have some clichés in the stereotyping of some of my characters. There’s a group of popular girls, the bad boy and his friends, jocks and un-cool kids, however my story is also set in high school where these stereotypes really do exist. I think I balance this problem well by having deep, well rounded characters who despite their surface stereotype have flaws and surprises.
To avoid all clichés would be to limit what we write about. Don’t limit yourself as an author, but do your best to be original and true to your story. Then once you have it written there’s a whole second type of cliché to consider: overused phrases. In my editing process I realized my book had far more phrase clichés then I thought and this is my brainstorming processes to rid myself of them.
The first type of clichés I mentioned were about what you were writing, these second kind are about how you write it. These ‘phrase clichés’ are all about saying things in new and interesting ways and avoiding phrases that have been done before. For me, my biggest problems in “Into the Deep” were:
“Piercing blue eyes”
“Piercing blue eyes”
When trying to think of new ways to say something I first stopped and asked myself “what do I want to say here?” For example I used the phrase “racing heart” over and over again in “Into the Deep”. So I said, “What does this need to describe?” and I made a list.
Racing Heart: fear, panic, exhilaration, nervousness…
Then I thought about what specific action it’s describing, the beating of a heart. So I brainstormed again, making another list of things that happen to a person when they are scared, panicked, exhilarated, and nervous. I came up with things like sweating palms, dilating pupils, labored breathing. Which was good, these were things that were different from my overused phrase of a “racing heart,” and in some instances they worked just fine to trade out a racing heart for labored breathing. But, I couldn’t do this for every one or I would just have had “labored breathing” as an overused phrase, and some of those phrases were just as cliché as a “racing heart”, so I needed to be more creative in other places.
This is where looking at the actual action I was trying to describe helped me. I wanted to replace “racing heart” with a simile, so what does a racing heart do? It beats, so I brainstormed “things that beat” and made a list; music, fists, a hammer, jackhammer, hummingbirds wings, (now many of these are clichés as well but I was getting closer, “my heart was beating like a jackhammer has been done before,”) But the more I kept thinking about it the more I was able to come up with examples that were more abstract. I found the farther my simile was from what I was trying to describe the better it was.
After some time these were the things I had written on my list: “My heart was beating like a hammer after a stubborn bent nail,” and “My heart was thumping like the foot of a frightened rabbit.” Much better than “my heart was racing.” After I had a list of phrases like this I used the “Find” tool in Microsoft Word to search for every time I said “racing heart” in my novel. From there I went through and swapped out my overused cliché for a fitting phrase from my list. Once I swapped them out everything else that I wanted to say came together. Here is an example from “Into the Deep.”
My shoes squeaked against the tile floor as I walked past the showers and toward the large open area of red lockers. Fear was making my whole body shake. I felt like a small child that had been locked in a closet, afraid of the sleeves of the coats behind me as if they were monsters in the dark, and the pounding of my fists against the closet door was the panicked rhythm of my heartbeat. Walking through the locker room my heart was beating so hard I worried it would break my ribcage. Then I heard a noise and held my breath, something metal clanking against the tile and a murmured voice. I took a deep breath and stopped walking. I closed my eyes and calmed myself. I could do this.
This paragraph is much stronger with the phrase “I felt like a small child that had been locked in a closet, afraid of the sleeves of the coats behind me as if they were monsters in the dark, and the pounding of my fists against the closet door was the panicked rhythm of my heartbeat,” to describe my heartbeat then saying “my heart was racing.”