How Using Clichés Can Actually Elevate Your Writing
August 22, 2023
When writers hear the word “cliché,” they often cringe because they associate clichés with stories and characters that have been played to death. Corrupt cop: seen it. Prostitute with a heart of gold: seen it. Dumb jock: seen it. But what if I told you that clichés can actually be a useful weapon in your writing arsenal?
While it’s incredibly important to create an original and fresh screenplay, clichés can serve as the jumping-off point to strengthen your writing and connect with your audience. Let’s talk about ways clichés are useful to writers.
Clichés are tropes and characters that have been used so frequently that they have become easily recognizable. Using a cliché in the right way allows you to tap into the collective experience of your audience, creating a sense of familiarity and understanding.
When used wisely, clichés can serve as a springboard for your writing, providing a relatable starting point that draws the audience into your story.
The Nostalgic Factor
Nostalgia has a powerful impact on emotions. By harnessing it, you can create a deeper and more specific response from your audience. One reason to start your story with a cliché is that certain ones remind the audience of their favorite book, popular films, or real-life stories from the news.
Read More: Find New Ways Into Old Stories
But remember that audiences today have seen a LOT of films and will tune out if the story is too familiar. It’s perfectly fine to start with a cliché but then – and here’s the important part - you must subvert it.
Twisting the Cliché
One of the most powerful ways to use a cliché is to subvert it, twist it, or flip it on its head, taking the audience to the last place it expected to go.
Once you have established a clichéd scenario or character, you can then take your writing in an unexpected direction. This twist not only surprises the audience but also shows your ability to think outside the box and is a great way to stand out!
Common Cliches to Twist
Inspired to twist a cliché now? Here are a few ways you can do it.
A Doll’s Life
One of the best recent subversions of a cliché is in the Barbie movie. Not only does Barbie (Margot Robbie), start out as the plastic doll we knew as kids (with a good dose of nostalgia, I might add), the inciting incident in the film is Barbie having an existential crisis in the form of fear of death.
Record scratch! Dolls don’t think about death…do they?
Well, this one does and it creates a huge rabbit hole for her to go down. Suddenly, the audience is on her unexpected journey out of her perfect pink world. Where will her fear and curiosity around death lead her? We are on-board to find out!
If you want to see more about subverting expectations, read ScreenCraft's post on Barbie and its famous monologue by America Ferrara explained.
Love Conquers All
In a rom/com, love is the answer to all the protagonist’s problems. It is the thing that will complete the protagonist’s life – if they will just let themselves be loved. But the process of loving another human being that you didn’t birth, is actually complex and difficult to sustain. Showing that part of love can subvert the cliché of “Love Conquers All.”
One of the best examples is in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Clementine (Kate Winslet), and Joel (Jim Carrey), experience so much pain in their relationship, they are willing to go through the extreme process of having their minds erased. To no one’s surprise – it doesn’t work and Clementine and Joel end up back together after each brain treatment, falling back into the same pattern.
This is a fresh and meaningful way to look at love and all its downsides. Love, whether we like it or not, has a plan all its own.
Read More: How to Make Rom/Coms Great Again
The Damsel in Distress
There’s no way a helpless woman getting rescued by a prince would fly in today’s world, even in Disney fairy tales. These days, the roles are often reversed, and the woman saves herself or even rescues the hero. If you look at the animated film Frozen (2013), with Elsa (Idina Menzel) saving Anna (Kristen Bell), it’s clear the filmmakers wanted to show a strong heroine who would be relatable to a modern girl.
Another film that subverts the Damsel in Distress cliché is Damsel (2018), a comedy set in the Wild West where a young man, Samuel (Robert Pattinson), repeatedly tries to rescue and save a very capable young woman named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who doesn’t need saving. The comedy comes from his repeated failings.
The Happy Ending
Audiences have come to expect happy endings in films – particularly if there is a romance, family or holiday involved. But not every happy ending has to be happy in the same way.
In 500 Days of Summer (2009), the film is about a romance between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) – two people in the prime of their lives. But when the romance doesn’t work out, the story doesn’t end there.
We stay with Tom until he meets a new woman – Autumn (Minka Kelly) – and hope and happiness is restored. Will things work out between Tom and Autumn? We don’t know, but we do know Tom deserves love and is now a step closer to finding it considering how much he’s grown and matured after the heartbreak he previously endured.
These examples show how subverting cliches can bring freshness and creativity to storytelling, keeping the audience engaged and surprised by unexpected twists and turns. Remember, any cliché should be used sparingly but can add a touch of familiarity to your story.
Written by: Shanee EdwardsShanee Edwards is an L.A.-based screenwriter, journalist and novelist who recently won The Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer and was honored to be mentored by actress/producers America Ferrera. Shanee's first novel, Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers was published by Conrad Press in 2019. Currently, she is working on a biopic of controversial nurse Florence Nightingale. Shanee’s ultimate goal is to tell stories about strong, spirited women whose passion, humor and courage inspire us all.