Death to All Cliches?

Posted by annastan on January 14th, 2011. Filed under: Craft, WIP, Writing Rants.

Everything was going great with my new WIP, until…I came across this eye-opening post on YA cliches. Number 10 on the list (protagonist argues with only friend and winds up alone) is definitely in my WIP. Doh!

I started to panic. Had I really written something so cliched and not even realized it? For years I’ve been taught that cliches are bad: death to all cliches! I started thinking of ways to change it, to make the friendship go in a different direction, but none of it felt right.

Finally, I consulted with my husband who’s the only person to read the story thus far. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me. “There is nothing else cliched in your story. Maybe that one can stay.” (This is why I keep him around; he’s always so level-headed.)

When I thought about it, I realized that he might be right. Okay, so maybe an element in my story has been overdone. But, as my husband reminded me, some cliches exist for a reason: because they can be effective. By having my protagonist lose her only friend, I take away her security blanket, thus giving her even more challenges to overcome.

If my manuscript was one cliche after another, it would be time to rethink it. But I think I’ve put enough of my spin on things that the more common elements won’t be too glaring. Hopefully the cliche police won’t come to take me away.

Have you come across any cliches in your writing? When do you decide that a cliche must die and when do you spare its life?

16 Responses to Death to All Cliches?

  1. Laura Pauling

    That’s a tough question. Something turns out cliche only if the writing is bad. with excellent writing – I don’t care if a character describes him/herself in the mirror. I decide not to use it if I’ve read a lot of books and seen it! I might just try to add a little twist to make it not so cliche-ish.

  2. angela

    I agree with Laura. Those lists are great and all, but they tend to create panic unecessarily sometimes.

    If your set up is cliche, or contrived, I think then you may have to look at how to evole the scene to have the ‘break up’ come about in a new way. But that fact that your MC falls out with her bestie, that’s a common theme in real life growing up. Kids will rlate to it, and the fear of being alone.

    Exploring it is not necessarily a cliche, as long as it is critical to the plotline/character arc and it’s brought about in a fresh and compelling way.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  3. Marquita

    Wow- thanks for linking to our post :) And, your husband is 100% correct. I have a cliche or two in my MS but I don’t let it bother me either. If I had all 15 on the list then yeah, it would be time to re-write THE ENTIRE thing. But I think it’s hard to avoid every single cliche in the world, or well…they wouldn’t be cliches, right??? Great post!

  4. Pam Harris

    Hi! Thanks for the linkage! I think cliche are necessary in many stories; your husband is right, they can be quite effective. However, I think the execution of the cliche is what makes you a great writer. :)

  5. Sheila JG

    That’s a funny list, thanks for sharing. I think they should add: female MC has two hot guys she can’t choose between. I don’t know if it’s just my book selection, but that one seems to come up all the time.

    It reminded me of another list that made me laugh -”If I were an evil overlord” – a list of sci-fi/fantasy cliches. (

  6. Kelly Polark

    It is intriguing to see what is overwritten in the genre. Thankfully my mc’s love interest has brown eyes and she loves science (okay that’s not math, but still…). But like your husband said, it does seem minor if the rest of your story is kick butt original plus every writer writes each “cliche” a whole different way!

  7. Laura Marcella

    Clichés will always exist, but they’re not all written the exact same way. I think your hubby is right here! If you didn’t even realize it, then probably others won’t either because you’ve written it in such a fresh way!

  8. Andrea Vlahakis

    When I think of cliches, I think of an overused phrase (e.g. bright as a button) Ugh. Those I eliminate as soon as they’re down on paper. But overused plot ideas are trickier. I do think you can use them, but you need to put your own spin on them to make thm both your own and unique.

  9. Anne R. Allen

    Cliches get cliched for a reason–they’re popular. Things are popular because they resonate with a lot of people. I think if you wrote entirely without cliches you’d probably end up with something nobody could relate to. So including a few is probably not a bad idea at all.

    I did find the list enlightening. A lot of the worst seem to have to do with the author creating a MC who is too much like herself (hating math, loving retro music.) That’s a different problem entirely.

  10. annastan

    Laura, that’s a good point. There are only so many plots out there – it’s good writing that can keep something from feeling like a cliche.

    Marquita, so true! Everyone’s bound to be guilty of at least one cliche!

    Pam, absolutely. If you can use a cliche and still make your story feel fresh, that’s good writing.

    Sheila, I’ve seen that SFF cliche list before – so funny!

  11. annastan

    Kelly, you’re right that every writer will have her individual take on a cliche. If she doesn’t have her own take, that’s when it really screams cliche!

    Laura M, I like that idea. If I didn’t notice the cliche then maybe no one will either. :-)

    Andrea, you’re right that overused plot elements are tricky. I guess the key is to keep the story from feeling predictable.

    Anne, interesting idea about authors creating protags who are too much like themselves. That probably explains the number of characters who want to be writers!

  12. Heather Kelly

    Anna–I bet you wrote that cliche well. Which is all that matters, really. :)

  13. Julie Musil

    I try to catch them, but I don’t always succeed. Your cliche is a cliche because it happens so often in real life. Most teens can relate to that.

    Don’t you just love hubby’s that offer such down-to-earth wisdom? My guy isn’t a writer, but he clears up my foggy thoughts on a daily basis.

  14. annastan

    Aw, thanks Heather! I certainly hope so.

    Julie, that’s a good point – often elements seem overdone in fiction because they reflect what frequently happens in real life. I don’t know what I’d do without a down-to-earth husband! :-)

  15. Anne Bingham

    There is a long thread on the Blueboards inspired by Joelle Anthony’s first cliche article that the SCBWI bulletin printed a couple of years ago. I’d include the link but then I’d have to stop everything and go looking for it!

  16. Elisabeth

    I know I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I just finished When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and this cliché (or close variant of it) is primary to the plot, but oh! What a wonderful book! So I agree that one cliché doesn’t have to be, in any way, a negative to a well-written book.

    Congrats on your progress with this WIP! I have “completed draft envy”!