There’s generally a negative mentality towards the overuse of the classic ‘tropes’ in all forms of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s on television or in writing, it seems that the majority of aspiring writers either look down on stories that enter the realm of cliches or they judge everything they write with the fear that their story will seem unoriginal.
Professional Fantasy Author Brent Weeks (a personal favorite of mine) even makes a joke about this in The Night Angel trilogy by having an antagonist claim to be the protagonist’s father as a jest. Until the jest is revealed, it is intentionally reminiscent of the classic “Luke, I am your father” trope from the original Star Wars movies. Whether he would have preferred to use the cliche seriously or simply wanted to make the reference as a joke is always up for debate but in the end, he used it in a unique way that entertained his readers.
This particular example was a jest but does that mean that cliche moments can only be used in jest for them to seem vaguely original? Before we can decide that, we should look at what’s considered “cliche” and what isn’t. The only problem is that while I was researching this, I found that the difference in opinion is staggering when it comes to a specific definition.
It didn’t just extend to common story tropes like “the hero with a tragic past” or popular match-ups like “vampires versus werewolves” either. Simple phrases like “pot calling the kettle black” and even the words “cool” and “awesome” were targeted by some people as overused cliches. The definition seems so broad these days that the term “cliche” is becoming meaningless to some people. The question most writers seem to be asking is more often “What ISN’T cliche?”
However, I finally found someone that provided a definition for what cliche is that made sense to me. Creative writer/artist/youtuber Cy Porter states that an effective event in writing becomes cliche when it is overused to a point that it is no longer effective to the audience.
Rather than narrowing things down, this led to me asking myself many more questions. It’s widely argued that writers as a whole may have already tried every genre or scenario possible at least once already. Does that mean everything can be cliche? I like to think that’s not the case.
In many situations, there are actually logical reasons for something to be used frequently other than how effective it was the first time around. A tragic hero would be less likely to set out on his heroic journey if he was completely content with a happy life at home. The same applies to the villains of our stories, would they antagonize our hero if they didn’t have something trigger their descent down that dark path? Readers enjoy these common characters because they can relate to them no matter which side they’re on.
There are also times that something is labelled as a common cliche just for being normal. LitReactor posted an article that listed “10 Storytelling Cliches That Need To Disappear Forever” and included “blaming bad behavior on bad parenting” as one of the worst cliches in writing. As much as I respect the writers of Litreactor, I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Blaming bad behavior on bad parenting was never an idea conjured up in a story. The reason it’s used so often is because it’s such a common opinion in actual society. That can’t be considered a cliche in storytelling, that’s just a typical occurrence in life!
I suppose when it comes down to it, it just depends on how much you decide to generalize things (or how much you want to nitpick). A horror story about a group of students on a trip that goes horribly wrong might be considered cliche but the events themselves and the way that the story is portrayed can still be unique. There’s a big difference between a theme that’s considered cliche and the story itself being a cliche.
If you enjoy certain genres or tropes and you’re feeling inspired, why should you avoid writing your own unique story for it? Instead of shying away from something popular, why not focus more on proving there’s still original stories to be found there?
After all, there’s a ton of typical zombie flicks out there yet I still keep watching them. Some stories don’t even need to be good to stay unique…