You wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. You’ve just had the most brilliant idea in the middle of the night and you’re pretty sure you’ve just dreamed up your next bestseller. You get up to jot down notes and tell yourself you’ll write it down in more detail in the morning. The morning comes and you return to your idea to see if it was any good. Your computer boots up, you read over your notes, and… oh no. Your book is REALLY cliche. Not like… a little unoriginal, but REALLY cliche. Now you have to go through your idea and make sure it’s as original as possible. But how do you do it?
How do I keep my writing from being cliche?
Research is one of the most powerful tools you can use to make sure your idea is as original as possible. By reading other books in your genre, you can be sure that you won’t have the same ideas as anyone else. The important thing to remember here is that it is nearly impossible for an idea to be original. Storytelling is something that humans have been doing for as long as we’ve existed, so the chance of an idea being original is very slim. The trick to creating work that is uniquely you. Using the right combinations of ideas, you can create a story with uniquely you character, settings, and plot.
What could be considered cliche?
In the year of 2019, I see cliches everywhere. A cliche is a character type, a plot point, or a particular setting that has been horrendously overused in media in a relatively close period of time. For example, common tropes that exist today are zombies, fake dating to make people jealous and then falling in love, western themes, villains having multiple final forms, and post-apocalyptic wasteland. Things that may have been tropey a hundred years ago would have been rags to riches stories, orphaned children, and superheroes. This does not mean that if something is trending, it’s cliche. The number one most important thing to write what you love. If a specific story, character, or plot point speaks to you, write it! Just make sure that EVERY element in your story isn’t cliche.
Unfortunately, what I see a lot in novice writing that is being produced are Anime tropes. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Anime. Japanese storytelling is some of the best in the world, so I can understand being inspired by it. However, what I see often is young writers including too many of the Anime tropes. Whether it be from the main character who can do no wrong, to a villain who has one wing and a tragic backstory, these tropes are prevalent. They’re not interesting, they’re overused, and they bring your story down.
The Japanese are expert users of the trope. -dere types are different types of girls in romance-based anime (think kuudere, tsandere, etc.). These types are instantly recognizable and are more like character archetypes than tropes. However, they can be used to create nauseating cliches. Only the top 100 anime use these tropes correctly, and the rest of all of the anime ever made is incredibly boring. They just use the tropes like an old wet sock and many anime fans watch the boring, tropey anime simply because they’re looking for something new to watch. Don’t be the old wet sock. Be the shining example of innovation that’s present in the films of Hayao Miyazaki and the brilliant writing of Kohei Horikoshi. Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are also brilliant innovators when it comes to tropes, cliches, and archetypes. Look to them for inspiration!
Where can I use tropes?
The trick is to use only one or two in your story. If you want to have a one-winged angel with a tragic past, make sure every other element of your story is as unique as you can get it. If you want to have a couple pretend to be friends in your romance novel and still get together in the end, maybe have the circumstances or reasons for this be unusual or out of the ordinary. Tropes are a necessary evil. They make the story relatable and are something every human can connect with, but when overused can make your book feel cookie-cutter.
Use your tropes early and not in climactic places. The last thing you want to do is lead your reader up into a great climax, only to hit them with a huge cliche. This will make your readers incredibly angry. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten to the end of novels and been disappointed by the whole thing. The entire book could have been good all of the way up to that last bit, but the cliche will ruin it for me. The book will forever remain a sour taste in my mouth as a reader because I was so let down.
How can I avoid tropes?
By reading, you can know what has been done and what is currently done. If you stay up to date on pop culture, you’ll know what everyone else is doing and avoid making the same mistakes. Sometimes, the tropes can make you money. Whoever makes the trope the best dominates the top of the dog pile, which can make it hard to be seen. Riding the trope train can be a good idea if you already have a huge following. If your fans have been harping you about writing a western, and then Westworld comes out, their desire for a western will only grow. If you know they’ll buy it, then write it! Make the subject matter your own and write a killer book.
However, if you’re small, avoiding tropes is a necessity. Your work will look amateur and unpolished. People will find your plot predictable and get bored reading it, which is not what you want. You want to hold their hand, give them something familiar, and then BLAM! You catch them with a surprise. Even though you may LOVE the tropes, you have to let them go. They’re not going to help you grow in your career.
Having an editor can make finding tropes in your own writing easy. A developmental editor will help you find these tropes in your writing and keep your work fresh. Get new eyes onto your work and tell them to be honest. They will be able to tell you if your work is too cliche or not. By being the author of your own work, the cliches are too close to home and you may miss them because you love your story like your own child.
How can I twist my cliches to make them original?
The key to turning cliches into solid gold lies in thinking outside the box. An easy way to do this is to take your trope and flip it on its head. Do you have a villain who dies and then comes back, proclaiming, “This isn’t even my final form?” Let’s think of the opposite. How about a villain that dies a tragic death too quickly, proving he is only human, but then leaves behind puzzles, traps, or other mysteries to solve? How about a villain who doesn’t WANT to have a final form? What if they come back as a horrible monster or their body is taken over by a super virus that transforms them into an alien superweapon?
Another great way to change up tropes is to mash it up with another trope. If your hero is a young boy with a tortured past, demonic powers, and an eyepatch, what else can you mix with this to be more interesting? Maybe the boy doesn’t hear the voices of demons, but instead a telephone salesman from another planet. The boy is super convincing and has the charisma of a god, but only because the customer service agent on the other line is telling him what to say. Really get creative. By working to make your story really stand out, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.
Tropes are a great launching off point for your writing. If there is a theme or a truth that you are really passionate about, don’t be afraid to use it. Just make sure you’re taking the time to recognize when you’re writing a trope. Don’t be so married to the idea that you sink your entire book. What are your least favorite tropes? The tropes that really get my goat are the “cool guy” love interest (think Edward Cullen) and the “cool anime anti-hero trope.” What really grinds your gears? I’d love to know in the comments?