Shut up. Shut up already! I hate cliches as much as the next guy, but the difference between me and the next guy is that I’m better equipped at identifying them. I think a lot of people don’t know what a cliche is and start labelling things cliche that are not. I think maybe film has something to do with this. Recycled plot arcs, the hero’s journey, the girl meets boy etc. narrative of the rom-com, they’re things we grow up with, they’re things that go through the wash and come out a slightly different colour but they still do the same thing. We see them and recognise them and think, oh for the love of god, the boy and the girl get back together at the end? How cliche…
When it comes to books, there’s so much more going on. What makes the hero’s journey cliche in a book is not the narrative arc, it’s the generic prose, it may have an archaic tinge to it, that formal third person epic quest narrator that tells us the same story over and over. Cliches aren’t in the story, but how we tell them, how we string our words together. It is cliche to start a story with “once upon a time” or “it was a dark and stormy night”. Where these were once unique, they have now been done to death. Same with emotional eyes in poetry. Or the ocean. So many poets describing so many eyes and emotions, it becomes boring and repetetive. You might as well leave it blank and say “insert generic eye metaphor #307”.
In the literary world, what some people may call a cliche is probably just a trope. A trope is a device you can use, which your readers are already well aware of. For instance, the hero’s journey is a trope because it a familiar narrative arc where the plot follows a familiar pattern. It is to be expected. Writing it in a bland, stereotypical, or well-exhausted way makes it cliche. You’ve probably heard the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. If you read a trope and you’re thinking cliches, there’s probably a cliche somewhere in there. On the other note, a capable write will be able to write a story following a hero’s journey narrative arc, or employ other such plot arcs or tropes without coming off as cliched. If you do it well, people may not be able to tell that tropes are present until they probe a bit closer. You could even call attention to the trope or cliche to subvert its meaning, which I think is a trope of its own, called “lampshade hanging”. You see it often enough in films where something happens that seems like a plot hole until a character from within the narrative calls attention to it, before carrying on like nothing happened.
So now that we know that cliches are more a by-product of bad prose than a bad story, we can move on to beating the cliche. This is the easy part. Once you step back and have a look at your writing and figure out it lacks character and intrigue, you just need to have another crack at it. Get those creative juices flowing. Aim to write a story that no one else can write. Each narrator you create will have their own voice, and while they may just be average joes, nobodies thrust into the chaos of your story, the only person that thinks like your character is your character. The only person that thinks like you is you. From your word choice to your phrasing to your punctuation, it all needs to be framed around a narrator who thinks like a real person, existing outside of stereotypes and bland, repetitive writing.
Now, I’d hate to sound like I’m endorsing realism over other genres here, so I think it’s necessary to point out the distinction between a realistic narrator and a realistic narrative. While a realistic narrative sounds like it could happen, a realistic narrator can be as reliable or unreliable as they choose, as you choose. The narrator thinks and acts and says how people think, act and speak. They can exist in whatever world they please, but in the telling of their story, there will be things they will choose to omit and things they will choose to include, and the things they include, they will describe in a way that is particular to their character. If the character doesn’t care, why should the reader? If the character is merely a vessel for the author to tell the story, that’s no good either. We need the narrator to draw us in, to provide us with details, with senses and feelings and thoughts that feel as though they were real even if the narrator were living in a world of fairy floss. The narrator needs to transport us to their world the way that only they can. Details that no one else has described before. Thoughts and ideas that feel human but are somehow different, unique to the narrator. You can be anybody, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. It doesn’t have to be a real time, place or person, but you need to be able to take us there, make it real, kill the cliche where it stands, and erect a flag that states that your literary world is the only one of its kind, and that you have taken the time and effort to ensure that this is the truth.