Spotting clichés in the stories of others is often easy-as-pie. But how do we know when we’re seeing ourselves clearly? What if our own story sounds just as derived as fan-fiction, and we don’t even know it? Our ideas feel different to us. We can see the world in our heads, and it looks nothing like Twilight or something from Disney. But is that how it’s coming across to other people? We’re not naming names today, or listing clichés. As useful as this can be, there are lots of places to find those. Let’s talk about patterns that tend to show up in every genre and every target range–patterns in the way that you and your readers react. Here are some tell-tale signs. Read on if you are brave.
1) It reminds people of something else. Your describing your story and your listener responds with, “Oh, like in Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Dragon Riders of Pern/Ender’s Game/Star Wars?” Some people will ask this the moment you tell them you’re writing a Fantasy etc, but we’re not talking about them. This is shortly after you’ve started talking about your story and the events in it. Question: Why am I getting this response? What could I do to change the immediate association people seem to be making?
2) You have to explain why it’s not cliché. Often. You tell your listener that you have elves, or wizards, and then you launch into an explanation (that in truth sound more like excuses), as to why yours are different. Chances are, they’re not. If one of your ideas is really different, you wouldn’t have to tell us. You wouldn’t have to tell yourself. It would just be different, and we would see that in the first five seconds of being introduced to the idea. Question: Am I feeling particularly defensive about this? How can I make my ideas immediately stand out, instead of counting on readers to “keep going?”
3) You remind yourself that “you thought of it first.” When your originality is questioned with an actual example, you refuse to change your manuscript because “you thought of it first,” or that “you would have thought of it anyway.” You need to explain to people that the idea came to you years before what they’re seeing on the shelves. Or that what is currently on the shelves had no effect on your story. Question: Really? Am I brave enough to change this?
4) Those names sound familiar… You have names for things that also show up in other stories, such as: Dark Lord, Empire, Rebellion, Dragon Rider, Black Rider, Elemental or Chosen One. They’re nothing like what people usually associate with the word (or are they?), but you have to explain this (once again), to people. Question: Do I really want to use the same name another author did? Am I okay with people continuing to point out my “Dark Lord” is like Star Wars for as long as I live? What else can I call this thing?
5) People can guess how it ends. Go ahead. Tell your mom, boyfriend, or critique partner what your story is about. Ask them how they think it ends. If they can do it a couple chapters to the end, you might want to shake things up with a twist or two. If they can do it around the middle, consider throwing in a red-herring or two. If someone can guess your end from your initial hook? You’d better get crackin’ on revisions, because that’s no fun for anyone. And just saying, if there’s a prophecy about how things end? I’m not betting my money on your story ending any differently. Question: What would make your readers say, “Blah blah blah…I so saw that coming.” What would make readers go, “Yes! I was afraid we weren’t going to make it!” Or better yet, what would make your readers say, “What the wiggedy-whack?! My brain is blown with awesome!”
You are an author. You have the authority to sculpt your world. You don’t owe anything to your muse, the Goddess of Inspiration, or your original dream. Stop having to defend your originality and go be original. Work. Sculpt. Shred. Build. Take ownership of your characters instead of letting your whims walk all over you. Be an artist. Make someone go, “Wow! I wish I’d thought of that!” …and then smile because you make it look easy.
Christine Tyler lives in the underwater realm of the Pacific Northwest. She is accompanied by her submarine Lieutenant husband and organically grown offspring. She enjoys geology, botany, romantic chemistry and yoga. And raptors. Very much raptors. You can read more useless pontifications on her blog: The Writer Coaster Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Thanks for this great post, Christine!
I tend to avoid cliches by looking at my stories from a different perspective. And by focusing on my chatacters instead on the roles they play. How do you all deal with cliches?