We’ve looked at how to kill clichés, and where to find ideas to replace them. Hopefully, by now, we know what dangers lurk in our own lazy imaginations and we know how to avoid them. Of course, we didn’t have to spend much time discussing why clichés are bad for your story, or why you should seek to eliminate them. But now that we’ve spent so much time preparing for war against the onrush of clichés, I think it’s time to take a minute and ask ourselves, do clichés have a place in our novel? Ever? Actually, I think they do, sometimes, in small doses. In fact, I think there are three main occasions in which a cliché can be a helpful tool as you craft your story.
Before I get started though, I’d like to clarify that I’m discussing minor clichés, like a medieval market which reeks, or a villain’s henchmen with an ugly scar across his cheek. I’m not talking about plotline clichés, which, I believe, have no business sticking around in a novel, save the very rare exception.
Now, without further ado, three situations in which clichés can build your novel:
Clichés mark a setting
So, you know the Main Character (hereafter “MC”) is stuck in a dungeon. Great. Now there doesn’t need to be anything special about the dungeon, the villain who’s about to walk in is (hopefully) original enough to make the scene interesting. But the fact is, you don’t know whether you’re in a dark, lonely pit of a dungeon with no windows and a stone staircase wound along the wall, or in more of a prison style dungeon filled with a dozen cells, iron-barred windows, and a snoring guard with keys on his belt.
Two very different settings, both “dungeons.” How can a cliché help you here? Well, if you were trying to, as your writing teacher dutifully instructed you, come up with an unexpected detail for the dark pit model, you may struggle to convey to your reader that MC is in a pit, rather than a cell. You see, the tally marks scratched on the wall from the last resident could easily exist in either of our lovely abodes. However, if you use a cliché, you’ll be able to slap your reader right into the pit along MC. Say you mention the spiraling staircase, or the lone torch, or the lack of windows, or the chains which bind MC’s neck to the wall. All of these clichés are stereotypical of the dark pit model dungeon. You need only mention one, maybe two of these cliché details, and your reader will instantly be able to picture the rest. You reader has been in one of those dark pits before, and you can use that to your advantage.
Clichés don’t distract from novelties
One of the problems with clichés is that they’re weak compared to an original detail. In fact, they’re so weak, we disregard a handful of them in order to remember one original thing. Actually, this is also a strength. Let’s say that while poor MC is waiting on the villain (hereafter hobgob), one of the villain’s henchmen walks down to feed him vinegar and stale hard tack. Now, if you want your reader to focus on MC’s misery, fear, or hopelessness, you need the henchmen to not distract. See, if he were to come down brilliantly arrayed in a royal robe of crimson and violet, we’d suddenly be distracted. The very originality, the very unexpected detail we worked so hard to develop, would distract your reader from poor MC and he’d start asking questions about hobgob’s henchman. That’s not what we want. Now, if the same henchmen were to come down dressed in black, and a chain mail shirt we wouldn’t be all that curious about his garments, they’re not that special. Instead, we’d keep focused on what we want to be focused on: MC’s pitiful sustenance. The cliché would help keep our attention where we need it, while still giving enough detail that we can picture the enemy.
Clichés are familiar
Maybe MC is stuck in a dungeon, because he was time-warping between Mars and Faërie, and got stuck between a fast food diner and a cave-man’s campfire. Of course, all this was complicated by the fact that the semi-dystopian government sent orders to hobgob, who runs a resistance movement in the seventh sector of planet Zorgon, to capture MC in return for a pardon, and a rainbow bridge to Pixieville. None of this mentions MC’s talking stuffed teddy bear, and his lazer blaster equipped with A.I. and a food replicator.
If your story sounds anything like this, you may need a couple of clichés. I am reminded of Agent Phil Coulson’s quote from The Avengers, “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.” This is the exact same principle. If your story world is so crazy that your reader may get lost, consider putting the dystopian soldiers in white plate armor, and giving hobgob a nasty scar across his cheek. These clichés can become labels, to help the reader keep everyone, and everything, straight in your story.
If you readers are lost, it doesn’t really matter how original you are; they won’t enjoy your book, and they may not even keep reading.
What are some ways you’ve used clichés in your work?