You're such a cliché. What does that even mean?

This insult means that someone thinks you're unoriginal. That person is probably not making an effort to understand you. While the insult towards you is most likely unfounded, if someone describes your writing that way, s/he might be right.

So how do you create a cliché-less story?

The short answer: you don't.

Telling It Like It Is

According to a Google search (look at me, breaking citation rules everywhere), the definition of a cliché is an expression, idea, thing, or [character type] that loses originality or meaning due to its overuse.

Let's focus on the "idea" part of that definition.

History Repeats Itself

Overuse of an idea is inevitable. We have over 3,000 years of literature behind us, after all. Even if you're writing about contemporary issues or dealing with settings or technology never seen before, chances are someone can relate it to a cliché.

So accept it right now that clichés are not inherently bad. You gravitate toward certain clichés; the underdog, the happy ending, the payback scheme, etc. That's how you choose what to listen to, watch, or read.

Critics who call something a cliché are bitter because they didn't see anything "new" in someone's work, and that leads us to the real problem with clichés.

The Real McCoy

Back to the definition, a cliché is something that loses its originality from repeated use. What happens when something is repeated over and over? It becomes predictable.

If a story is too predictable to be enjoyable, guess what the reader will call it? Cliché!

The problem isn't a lack of originality, it's a surplus of predictability.

If a reader can take one look at your work and predict that X, Y, and Z are going to happen, unless the reader wants it all to happen, he or she will not be satisfied when events unfold like a math equation.

Using a cliché doesn't mean your story has to be predictable. You can hide a cliché if you have the skills.

Skills Needed

The most predictable clichés can become the most fun if served in the most creative manner. Like green eggs and ham. It's the typical breakfast, except it's green. In Dr. Seuss fashion, amping up the creativity through subversion makes your story less predictable and the cliché more bearable.

Take the Bet Cliché in romance fiction. You know the story: playboy guy makes a bet that he can make that nerdy/fat/ugly/prudish girl in the corner over there fall in love with him. Classic. But it doesn't have to be confined to that.

What if the girl was the one who made a bet that she can make a playboy commit to her in a relationship? What if a girl bet that she could get a boy with a phobia of horned animals to ride a mechanical bull in a month?

Subverting a cliché is not the only way to get creative, but it could be just what you need to explore something "new."

Another way to avoid cliché standardization is by making sure your characters aren't plot pawns. If the plot just happens to your characters because you said so, your characters are in danger of becoming puppets and the reader will see every string you pull.

By contrast, if your characters' desires and choices drive the plot, the plot becomes more surprising. It's not "what will the writer make them do next," it's "what will they do next?" Predictability disappears when characters make choices that matter to their desires.

All This For Nothing?

Using your creativity, subverting a cliché, and/or creating autonomous characters is not a guarantee that the cliché in question will become invisible. You can do all you can to hide the cliché you're using, but it's still a shadow; it exists no matter how much you deny it.

So again, accept it right now that clichés are not inherently bad. If you like a cliché, go ahead, write it out. Have fun with it! The suggestions above can help you.

Now when I said they weren't inherently bad...

On the other hand, some clichés are bad and weaken your writing skills. Plots can be reconfigured, characters can be given depth, but expressions or descriptions can't be saved if they have cliché poisoning.

I'm talking about expressions you use and hear everyday: between a rock and a hard place, better late than never, fall on deaf ears, literally, actually, etc. Falling back on hackneyed phrases cheats you of opportunities to use your creativity. So if you find that you're relying on clichés because your word bank went bankrupt, take a break. Read something with great style to help re-energize your vocabulary and thought process. Then, edit out as many clichés in your narrative as you can, and replace them with your own words. Clichés may have lost their originality, but your voice never will.

Exception to the Rule

Character dialogue can have clichés to mimic real speech, but use them as needed; enough to make the dialogue sound natural, but not enough to make it seem as if they can't string their own sentences together.

Summary: Using clichés isn't as disgusting as the insult insinuates! Yay! Clichés give you an idea of what to expect from a story, but the differences between a good cliché and a bad one are 1) the execution and 2) if it hinders your distinct writing voice from the creative freedom it deserves. So go forth and execute brilliant cliché-ridden stories!

Revised May 28, 2020 because Google keeps bringing people to this essay and I don't think they're here for writing advice.