As a writer, you can get away with almost anything. If you believe flying monkey’s deserve a place in your manuscript- go for it. If you’ve ever wondered how Abraham Lincoln would have handled a zombie uprising- that’s a legitimate story question to explore (in it’s book form, the movie butchered the premise something fierce). The reader places an exorbitant amount of trust in the writer, giving him or her free reign to construct a world, with one extremely critical caveat- avoid cliche writing!
Cliche is by far the most unforgivable path to destruction any story can take. Sure, there are endless ways to butcher a story- scenes without conflict, sub-plots with no purpose, poorly handled exposition- but if you really want to see the dark underbelly of a vengeful audience, shove rehashed, overused dialogue, character, and plot down their throats. As a reader, we begin our journey with the fragile hope that the storyteller will take us on an adventure that goes beyond the surface level commercials we are bombarded with everyday. We pray it manages to reach our hearts, sending a temporary spark of life to a soul aching for truth. Cliche storytelling not only manages to disregard that hope like an abandoned puppy, it backhands the poor animal while doing so.
At its core, cliche writing comes from one of two places- laziness or ignorance. When a writer begins their journey into storytelling, the vast majority of us start merely learning how to work with the basic tools at our disposal. Much like a novice painter, who first traces another artist’s work, then moves on to free form copying it, and then finally designing something unique of their own, many authors start with a similar process. While it’s not the source material for a quality story, it serves a purpose by helping overcome the first real challenge of writing- following through on writing.
However, as we grow as writers, our excuse for ignorance grows weaker, and we’re expected to come up with fresh stories. We set out to write a tale worth telling, but often find our stories derivative of what has come before. ‘What if we had a band of outlaws on the edge of space, running from the oppressive government?’ Crap, Joss Whedon did that fifteen years ago with Firefly. ‘Or how about a young boy who learns he has magic powers and is whisked off to some sensational school in the mountains?’ Thank you J.K. Rowling for the wonders of Harry Potter. And even if we do begin with a truly novel story question, we often find our tale quickly tripping upon overused plot devices or tracks of dialogue. The horses we use to pull our story’s forward are all long dead, yet we keep throwing a saddle on them and expecting them to take us to story nirvana.
The main culprit of cliche comes from a writer’s most unaware blindspot- hubris. It takes a certain level of self-assurance to believe you have what it takes to become a quality writer. Kept in check, that confidence will see you through the dark abyss that is doubt of talent. However, unexamined, it leaves us writing cliche drivel. The reality is that 90% of anything an author comes up with will never be his best, and often, the first plot point we dream up has been unconsciously stolen from some other author’s work. In that moment, we believe we’ve created something fresh, not realizing until we smell the rank odor later during editing that we simply used the long spoiled leftovers of someone else’s meal.
So how does a writer avoid cliche? By realizing that if 90% of whatever we come up with will never be our best, and often will be blatant imitation, then we live by the Rule of 10. For every major plot point, for every major character decision, we come up with ten different possible developments, then, we select the freshest, most honest choice or direction the novel can take. It takes more time in creating a story, but, it virtually guarantees the story’s plot will finish strong, and it ensures the reader only gets your most creative, original story line.