There are the obvious cliches, such as: “my heart was pounding in my chest”, or, “my breath caught in my throat”. There are dozens more that I’m sure you’re familiar with.
Per dictionary.com, the first definition of cliche is: “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.”
This fits perfectly well with my aforementioned examples, but as a writer you know that there’s more to it than that. It’s not restricted to just sentences and phrases being overused. It can be considered cliche to mimic another writer’s work too closely or to rewrite the same story that so many others have already told. Remember the whole vampire craze after Twilight came out? Ya, me too…*eye twitches*
So, unless you’ve got a brand spanking new idea that will turn an old idea on its head, then maybe avoid the types of storylines that have been dragged through the mud one too many times.
Let’s go over some ways in which we as writers can steer clear of cliches often found in literature.
1-Make it your own
Creating something completely new would be a sure way to avoid cliches. Sure, you may use similar plot devices that other writers have used in the past, but if the overall story is yours alone to tell, then you won’t have to worry about getting tangled up in a web of cliches.
When I say your own, I suggest that you use personal experience intertwined with your creativity to form something unique. Or, maybe write something based on a random/strange idea that pops into your head. You may say, “there’s nothing new to write about!” But there’s a first for everything. H.G. Wells was willing to explore the possibilities of time travel in his writing, just as J.K. Rowling was willing to create a whole new world in which Wizards and Witches lived in plain sight of us feeble-minded muggles.
That being said, the term “muggle” was completely alien when Harry Potter was first published. Coming up with something like that will surely make your story unique, so let that idea simmer in the pots and pans that sit on your mental stove.
2-Don’t take the path of least resistance
As writers it can be so easy to fall under the spell of taking the easy way out of the writing situations you put your characters through. Don’t be fooled though! It may be enticing at the time, but when it comes down to it your readers may grow bored and decide to put your story down. And once that book is down, it may never be picked up again! *gasp*
Do as Robert Frost suggests in his poem, "The Road Not Taken":
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When put into the context of writing, I read this as a recommendation to follow your own path and to do something new. All of us have seen a Hallmark movie, or at least know the gist of what those movies are like. NONE of those movies take the “[road] less traveled by”.
Sure, it can be satisfying to sit down and binge-watch some highly predictable romance or horror movies (my personal favorite) in which you know everyone’s going to die; but sitting down through a predictable movie as opposed to reading hundreds of pages only to reach a predictable climax and conclusion in a novel is completely different.
So don’t write something because it’s convenient for you. If you’re writing a story with a familiar setting, don’t jump into describing a scene that your reader would already imagine before reading through it. Let’s say you have your character at a school dance. Don’t do the familiar popular-girl-humiliates-our-protagonist-and-makes-us-hate-her-more thing. Break the mold by doing something else in that familiar setting-something your reader won’t see coming.
3-Turn it upside down
To bounce off of my last thought (using a familiar setting to do something new), you can also manipulate familiar story-types to avoid cliches. There are many great examples out there of writers who do just that: Seth Grahame-Smith took our beloved Pride and Prejudice and quite literally turned it on its head by adding Zombies to the mix. Or, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion similarly takes a very familiar story/idea and turns it around when he makes a sympathetic zombie his main character. I don’t know why I have zombies on my brain (mmmm...brains), but you get the gist.
I challenge you to take a story you’re working on now or a story you’ve written in the past and scour it for cliches. Analyze those cliches to determine why you wrote it that way so that you are better able to avoid doing the same in future writing. Now, chuck those cliches in the bin and use your creativity to make it something new. Make it your own, don’t take the path of least resistance, and turn it upside down if you have to!