How Do You Know It’s Cliché?

It sounds like it’s been done to death

Let’s start with three admissions: everything is derivative; nothing is original; it’s all been done before. But that doesn’t mean clichés are acceptable. 

How do I avoid clichés? I don’t. Not in the first draft.

I pour everything onto the page, fast as I can, even clichés. During the rewrites, however, I mercilessly hunt down and kill each of those overused, unoriginal bastards.

In my view, the author’s job is to innovate. It’s probably impossible to write what’s never been written before. To the extent my work is original, it became original in the second, third – truth be told, maybe the eleventh – draft. 

Originality is even harder for genre writers. A novel must fit into a recognizable category to be marketable, Tim Waggoner blogged Sept. 30, 2020 at But, writers are told “you need to make your work stand out from the crowd if you want to get noticed.”

Waggoner writes dark fantasy and horror – vampires, witches, ghosts, zombies. How does a Bram Stoker Award winner avoid clichés? How does the writer of fifty novels and seven short story collections terrify readers but bypass what’s been done to death? 

The Sinclair College creative writing professor and composition shared this advice: “Read a hell of a lot. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but far too many beginners want to write without having done much reading.”

Would-bes desire a writer’s status. Wanna-bes long to write a novel. But they’d rather watch The Grunge than write the screenplay. 

But the more writers read, in and out of their chosen genre, the more realize that maybe the world doesn’t need another story like “The last man and woman who survived the nuclear holocaust are really Adam and Eve!” 

Knowing what has come before will keep them from reinventing the wheel, Waggoner wrote. One cliché down, one million more to go.

Yep, zombie stories are still being told and still being filmed. But, Waggoner wrote, “If you must write a zombie story, pursue an angle you haven’t seen before.”

One of his students wrote about a dog that became a zombie. Owner pretended the dog – his only friend in a zombie-decimated world – was still normal. “Nothing standard about that,” Waggoner wrote.

And that’s the key. Dying to write a zombie novel? Go forth and write down your first idea. You’ll think it’s perfect. But change it. Twist it with a second idea. Contort it again with a third idea. 

“No matter how hard we all try, the first ideas we come up with are often retreads of something we’ve seen or read before,” Waggoner said. “Keep massaging them until they’re no longer run-of-the-mill.”

Don’t wrench your brain trying to come up with a completely original idea. Even Shakespeare didn’t do that. The Bard apparently read early Greek novels about kings before writing Julius Caesar, Richard II, and Henry IV Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. 

“Examine your idea from every angle,” Waggoner wrote. “I imagine it as a physical object that I can pick up and literally examine from all angles.”

But what about Alien? Wasn’t that pretty original? 

Watch A Trip to the Moon. 1902 French movie about disappearing lunar aliens. A Trip to Mars. 1910 American movie about a professor who reverses gravity. Goes to Mars. Half-human creatures and tree monsters imprison him. Freezes into a snowball that explodes. Catapults back to Earth.

Glen A. Larson created Battlestar Galactica in 1978. Storyline: Twelve Colonies of Mankind offer a peace treaty to their mortal enemies. Cylons – robots built by reptiles – double cross the humans and destroy the Colonies. Commander Adama leads Battlestar Galactica and the remaining Colonial fleet into space to find the thirteenth colony. Which turns out to be Earth.

Screenwriter Ronald D. Moore and producer David Eick reimagined the concept: Humans built the Cylons. President Laura Roslin. Starbuck and Boomer were female fighter pilots. Original Cylons were machines. Built their own humans and planted them the Colonial fleet. The mini-series was a ratings success. The Sci-Fi Channel commissioned a weekly Battlestar Galactica series, which lasted four seasons, followed by several movies.

Larson, a Mormon, also rubbed two unconnected ideas together: monsters in space and Mormons in space. The Council of the Twelve was originally a Mormon ruling body. The Twelve Colonies of Kobol named after Zodiac signs. Kobol is Kolob, from Mormon holy writings. 

By the way, Battlestar Galactica is derivative of the monsters in space concept.

One key to avoiding clichés is to marry two clichés, Waggoner wrote. Take two unconnected ides. A firefighter panics when he or she enters a burning building. A child has nightmares about a clown that stands at the foot of the bed.

“Get weird,” Waggoner advises. “Like, really weird.”

“How do you make a single story out of these ideas? Damned if I know. I just made them up a couple moments ago,” Waggoner wrote. Begin by exploring connections between them. Firefighter and child are related. Or the firefighter is the child all grown up. Or a clown is connected with fire. Or the terrified child burns the clown one night and ends up burning down his parent’s home. Or the adult firefighter hears a clown giggling when he or she enters a burning building.

Keep going, Waggoner wrote. Marry two clichés, and it’s an original story. Go one more step: add construction workers from Waggoner’s own experiences. “Five very sketchy-looking guys who were drunk every night and who exhibited some, shall we say, less-than-normal behavior. The experience of my wondering just what the hell they were doing up there every night gave me the idea for my Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novella The Men Upstairs.”

Is this actually an original story? Some critics will say no because his horror story is based on real experiences and a little imagination. Waggoner disagrees: “I know the story is original because a good part of it really happened, and it happened to me and only me out of all the people on the planet.”

Stephen King creates stories by asking what if. What if a witch touched a man and said, “Thinner?” What if a successful romance writer wrecked his car on a remote mountain road and was rescued by his number one fan. What if that fan was angry when she learned he was planning to kill off Misery, the heroine of the string of novels. What if the fan tied the writer to the bed and hobbled him with a sledge hammer until he changed the manuscript for his next novel? What if the writer had to escape in order to save his own life?

Dialogue is an equally tough area for clichés. 

“The average spec screenplay has waaaaay too mch dialogue,” Lucy V. Hay blogged in a 2014 And they are highly theatrical. And they are information dumps. And they are full of clichés:

“Who else knows about this?”

“No one.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

“This clanger usually precedes the person who came with the information getting killed,” Hay wrote. “It still more-or-less works, even if it is a little cheesy.”

Here’s a cheesy cliché:

“Vengeance is mine!”

“Yeah okay, calm down,” Hay wrote. “If you’re writing a Biblical epic and raining plagues down on other characters, then great.”

Or George Lucas, writing an overwrought line for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. No one else can get away with that.

“What is the meaning of this?” 

If this dialogue was ever authentic, it was probably in the times of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, Hay wrote.

Please. Just change a few words. 

“How COULD you?”

Just as bad. And we all know better. How could anyone who has written anything in the 21st century think this is effective writing?

“It just doesn’t feel real or authentic,” Hay wrote. She suggested:

“I can’t believe you did that!”

“Why would you do that?”