How to Write Unique Themes

How to Flip Clichés on Their Heads

The Art of Flipping ClichesOriginality is hard work—mostly because there’s nothing new under the sun—and it’s difficult to make something out of nothing. But here’s a nifty trick for taking seemingly worn-out ideas and turning them on their heads to create something fresh and vibrant.

In a nutshell, all this trick involves is grabbing a cliché, acknowledging it’s a cliché, and then spinning it 180 degrees until it’s something that both builds upon the original idea and creates a new slant of its own.

Guards Guards Terry PratchettFor example, Sir Terry Pratchett’s humorous fantasy Guards! Guards! manages to do just this on almost every page. He tackles clichés that range from fantasy standards such as dragons and prophesied heroes to general tropes and even real-life truisms about politics and relationships. The result is a cheeky story that entertains readers with its unexpected plot turns and its fresh and interesting viewpoints.

At a glance, Pratchett’s subject matter—a fantasy world inhabited by such usual suspects as dwarves and dragons—doesn’t seem terribly original. And, indeed, if he had taken his story world at face value himself, he would probably just have re-trod paths long beaten by other authors. But because he left no cliché unturned, he ended up with a book that was undeniably original.

Flipping clichés is a time-honored practice in humorous fiction, since the unexpected is often the essence of a good joke. But even more serious-minded writers can take advantage of the lessons found in Guards! Guards!

Sometimes just looking at an overused idea from a new angle can present entirely new possibilities.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you flip clichés in your current story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I am in doubt about this kind of technique. The same with the very popular tendency to “turn stereotypes on their heads”. In my opinion, if you do a 180 on a cliche or a stereotype you’re probably just going to get another, opposite cliche or stereotype. And I’ve seen that happen so many times while the author remains oblivious to the fact that they are not doing anything original.

    It does work in comedic fiction (probably because flipping a cliche and getting another cliche is funny) and Terry Pratchett has a particular talent for it. But I have never seen more serious fiction where I thought this worked well.

  2. I agree with the above comment. Making the opposite of a cliche seems like a cliche itself.

    However, I do agree that tweaking cliches or making non-cliches work in your story is much better than a story full of them.

  3. @subscreator: Subtlety and balance always need to be brought into play if we hope to create a memorable piece of fiction – especially serious fiction. The idea isn’t necessarily to look for the exact opposite of a cliche, so much as it is to look around the corner of a cliche and see if you can find something just different enough to be interesting in its own right.

    @Sarah: Cliches are usually cliches because they were originally ideas so grand that everyone started using them – to the point that they lost their pertinence and pizazz. If we can tweak a cliche just enough to get folks to stop and look (instead of glancing right over it and thinking, Oh, I’ve seen this before.), we can often reboot the power of the original idea’s grandness.

  4. Hmmm. This is an interesting topic. I certainly need help with originality!

    QUESTION: Can you give a specific example of “turning a cliche 180 degrees” in a non-comedy context?

    -Steve

  5. Joss Whedon’s space opera Firefly pops to mind. Many of the characters in this story played beautiful off expected stereotypes to become marvelously original characters. The mechanic Kaylee Frye (played by Jewel Staite) is a perfect example: Most female characters in the gnarly role of ship’s mechanic would be portrayed as masculine and independent, but Kaylee’s character is spunky, soft, and feminine. Totally unexpected – and totally effective.

  6. All right. This is interesting. Hmmmm. Too bad my book is non-fiction, but I think this could help. Thank you! 🙂

  7. Non-fiction is another ball of wax, since the facts is the facts. But the way in which you present the facts can always offer an original slant, right?

  8. It’s always fun when you can flip a cliché—both for the reader and the writer.

  9. It definitely opens up whole new worlds of possibility.

  10. I do my best to turn cliches on their heads. It helps that many of my favorite authors are masters at it and I study. When I read cliched work, I try to think about how I would change it to make it fresher and more original. It’s definitely something that takes practive because it’s so easy to fall into the same old routine.

  11. Reading broadly – both to discover the tropes that are overused and to learn how the masters present originality – is one of the best catalysts for finding originality in our own work.

  12. I’m sure my latest work is riddled with cliches and even worse, character cliches. However, they provide a strong starting point for me. Your post reminds me that during revisions I’ll have to look out for the cliches and brainstorm how to put a new spin on them!

  13. The cliche-free story has yet to be written. Because we all share the same human experience, it’s inevitable that our stories share common elements – especially in the first draft. The beauty of editing is that we can always perk those cliches into something more original in later drafts.

  14. Great advice! This is one of the writers best kept secrets. Cliche is your best friend, not someone you have to avoid. Just see it as a flag, a marker where other writers have been, and try to go beyond that flag, or as you say, flip that flag on its head. Good stuff, honored to be a finalist with you for the Write to Done contest!

  15. Well said. I like the idea of a cliche as a marker – sort of like those flags climbers put on mountain peaks to claim territory. They should just act as a spur for the rest of us to climb even higher. Congrats to you too for being a finalist!

  16. During draft one, I go ahead and write the cliche. But on draft two, I try to re-work it and make it something unique.

    Thanks so much for this great advice!

  17. Most of the time, when we write cliches, we’re not even aware that’s what we’re doing. Purposely hunting them is the only to make sure we’re replacing them with more vibrant imagery.

  18. I’m totally on board with turning cliches on their heads. Dark fantasy is the perfect opportunity to let your imagination loose.

    Neil Gaiman is the bestselling author of Neverwhere, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Stardust, and more. Check out how he turned the cliche below on its head in his novel Neverwhere. (Of course, you have to truly know the character Mr. Croup in order to really appreciate the line below.)

    Mr. Croup began to laugh. It sounded like a piece of blackboard being dragged over the nails of a wall of severed fingers.

  19. Neverwhere is a perfect example. Gaiman turned cliches on their heads every which way, even in things as simple as street names.

  20. Nice idea, one of my favorite exercise is finding cliche’s and changing them. I really enjoy brainstorming other possibilities with this common thought and get really awesome bouts of inspiration.

  21. This is one of the most exhilarating techniques a writer can use. I love trying it during drafting. Sometimes it works, other times I take it out during revisions, or change it to something better. I also love when a writer does it well because it really does add flavor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! It’s a blast. One of my favorite parts of my outlining process is always asking “what’s expected?” and “what’s unexpected?”–and then playing within those definitions.

  22. Being an unabashed wiseass and punster I tend to play with words constantly. However I find that using connotations, double meanings, and outright willful misunderstanding is sometime better than trying to turn a cliche fully inside-out. Such as a male child who uses the same chair consistently would prove “There is nothing new under the son.” I would say askew is more appropriate. To have something just out of kilter is shocking without being surreal. The point of view changing is also useful as in upgrading from common speak as in saying “defecation occurs.”

Trackbacks

  1. […] on!  You can work harder than that. Flip readers’ expectations on their heads by twisting the Damsel in Distress archetype. I wrote a recent story which is based on the Damsel in Distress archetype—and when the hero gets […]

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