Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Go Ahead, Use Clichés in Your YA

So, clichés in YA...there are lists and sublists, spoofs, drinking games and game shows (I'll take parentless teenagers for $1K, Alex). I'm sure you've seen it all, too--and perhaps tried to justify why clichés #'s 5, 8, 11, and 24 only apply to your manuscript a little bit. And then fretted because it's clear #'s 2, 13 and 19 are obviously in your work. It's enough to make you eat your own manuscript and throw it back up into the proverbial toilet bowl of shame.*

And yet, we see how successful books/movies can be with/despite clichés. So...how come we gotta be the ones to write all new, uncommon stuff? Maybe I want to write a story about a parentless teenage girl who ignores the sweet, pimply little fella stalking her and falls for the bad boy (vampire/werewolf/jock/guitarist) who ignores her, reforming said bad boy with her love so that they end up on a double date to prom with teenage girl's gay BFF and her former arch nemesis, the perky blonde hiding deep-seated insecurities.**

Okay, so, that was filled with "clichés," but I kind of want to read that story.

Maybe the problem is that we've come to believe common equals bad.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But from a $$$ standpoint, it seems to be pretty dang okay***. Not in the sense that you should now write a book about a pale girl named Jella who moves to Spoons and falls for a vampire named Eddie Sullen (that's fan fiction--and a whole other blog post); but in the sense that so many big sellers have derivative qualities and "clichés." Ideally, you can write an original, entertaining and gloriously lyrical story without a single cliché and make MILLIONS of dollars. But. Why exactly are you trying to eradicate all sense of the familiar? Are you really that opposed to prom? To gay best friends? To teenage girl MCs?****

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating the use of clichés. Neither am I condemning it. Per se. Yes, actual clichés, especially in abundance, can be annoying. That's hard to refute. But I think we need to be careful how we fling the cliché word around. That is, the blanket categorization of common elements in YA as cliché (and bad bad!) seems a bit careless to me, not to mention confusing, given how many successful books we've seen with said "clichés." If we were to strictly judge our manuscripts by the lists of clichés circulating the Internet, how many of us might feel compelled to rethink our stories--even if they're not filled with trite expressions, plots, and characters? Or worse, feel like we suck and should quit writing to go work in a pickle factory?

Let us not equate common with trite, my friends. A teenage girl MC is common in YA because, well, a lot of teenage girls read YA. So it makes sense it's common. In a Hello, Of COURSE kind of way. Just as it's common to have prom at the end of books (especially teenage romances), because prom is for many teenagers a meaningful event. Okay, fine, truth is most of the YA I write takes place in locations where lockers and prom and cafeteria lunches don't exist, but I was a misfit nerd who hated high school and constantly dreamed myself out of that location, so non-school settings and dangerous situations are just what I like. But if prom and hallways and homecoming makes sense for your book, and you like it, by all means, write those elements into your stories. And don't feel guilty about it. The key is to have language, plots and characters that feel original, even if the stories include prom and a vegetarian, clumsy teenage new girl at school who falls in love with the Chosen One destined to kill/eat her. In other words, write stories that are awesome (and that you love), regardless of the never-ever-don'ts they include.

Obviously, readers don't want to pay for the same old thing. They want to pick up a new story and feel the love they felt for an old story. If you can reproduce those emotions in readers without a single "cliché," AWEsome. Pip pip, cheerio. But it's totally possible to write good, original stories with common literary elements because it MAKES SENSE FOR YOUR STORY and not because that's just whatcha do in YA. Clearly, don't overload your manuscripts with every common element--that's just a parody waiting to happen.

Then again, do it if you want. Maybe it'll sell. Just write what you want to write and what people want to read. Not what you think will pass for an MFA thesis (unless you're writing an MFA thesis whether for grad school or because you really, really want to, in which case, ignore me completely.) I realize this advice (which is, after all, just a matter of opinion), is contrary to all the FOR-CRYING-OUT-LOUD-YOU-MUST-NOTs on the Internet and in your craft books. But I figure readers are hungry for good, memorable stories in all shapes and sizes. That's it. I believe in fiction as a matter of craft, and I work very hard to perfect it. But I work even  harder to please potential readers in a way that feels right to me, and sometimes that entails ignoring the must-nots.

*There is no such toilet bowl, proverbial or otherwise.
**I'm not sure what happens to little fella. Let's assume he turns out to be the bad guy all along.
***This is assuming that you give two kadoodles about $$$. Perhaps you write only for yourself, or for free, in which case, well, carry on. Cheers.
****FYI, I don't advocate the use of token characters of any kind. That's just insulting and generally diminishes the quality of your characterization. So, there you go. A must-not. Oh, the irony.


In the event you did not see yet, the winner of the signed hardcover of WANDERLOVE by Kirsten Hubbard was posted HERE. Thank you to all who entered! Stay tuned for the next giveaway.


  1. I love that you raise this point. There is a difference between writing about something so ubiqitous it has become cliche in a common way and writing about that same thing with a perspective that makes it new, bigger, or deeper. Some of the most satisfying writing, the aha moments, come from writers who twist cliches.

    Have a great week,


  2. I wonder if I'll ever write a book about a young person with parents. I'm not sure I know how. Both my parents were gone by the time I was 12. I guess that gives me an excuse to write those kind of stories, though.

  3. Great post. It's hard to avoid the cliches, particularly in contemporary. I think that's partly because they are real. It's an uphill battle I've faced with earlier drafts of my book, and I just want to kick and scream and say, "But I swear, it's true!! Go hang out at my son's high school! There really are the cliquey mean girls in their $300 jeans hanging like accessories on the arms of lunkhead jocks, and the chorus kids, the band kids and the drama kids really do hang out in clusters, each with their own subset of personalities." To break away from this almost feels DISHONEST, like a teenager wouldn't buy it. But as Martina said above, I think some of the strongest, most satisfying moments can come from twisted cliches. Sometimes taking things to an extreme actually makes them more effective because it's clear you're trying to be over-the-top.

  4. Ha ha! I love that you're making a distinction between cliche and common. This is true in other genres as well, like action/adventure novels. There's always a villain, who needs to be fully developed or the author risks veering too close to cliche. And the worst kind of cliche, that calls for plug-in characters that can more accurately be called caricatures.

    The lesson we can take away from this is that there's no harm in starting with something common, as long as you add your own special twist to keep it from being clicheed. And isn't that the point of writing, anyway? :P To write something nobody's ever read before? To create an allegory of a newly perceived truth about what it means to be human?

    Great post, Carol!

  5. Fantastic. I agree with this, especially in YA. Teenagers are dying to be validated. They want to relate. There is definitely a place for "cliches" in fiction. That's my opinion. To me, something often becomes cliche for a reason...it's working.We are responding to it. That's a generalization of course.

  6. Yep. Yep. Yep. I believe in breaking any and all "rules" if what I am doing fits the story. Story is king. Or queen. Or whatever. Write until it works. Whatever you wind up with that makes you happy=good. Great post, babe. Miss you!

  7. In any genre there are cliches and standard storylines. We just have to put a fresh spin on it.

  8. I say subvert cliches! Like In Mirror Mirror! Sleeping Beauty is no shrinking violet or in Shrek - the supposed "ugly" guy lives a happy, complex and wonderful life with the woman of his dreams and has amazing adventures too! Oh and the dragon falls for the donkey!

    Take care

  9. First of all, I missed you. I havne't been around the blog world too much so sorry. This is a wonderful post and something I needed to read and uplift my spirits.
    Edward Sullen--ha ha. Yep, I'm cracking up. I may just read that if you decide to write it. Sounds interesting. :)
    I love this and thank you for posting it.I totally agree. *letting out a breath and smiling*

  10. There's a difference between a trope and a cliche. The latter term often gets levied at things that are simply common elements in a particular genre--a trope. Like happily-ever-afters in romance. Fail to give one and you've genre hopped into women's fiction. Likewise you write a story about a 44-yo gal, it's not YA.

  11. Agreed! It's really more about the writing and tension added in. For me, a story only sounds cliche when the writing is below par. I must say though that it is terrificly refreshing to read a completely original YA with great writing for example: Daughter of Smoke and Bone. To me that rises above the typical YA. But then you have Shatter Me, which follows the common tropes when it comes to dystopian, yet the writing blew me away. So it can be either way.

  12. First of all, I'm so glad you're back to blogging! I've missed your posts, lady!

    "...it's totally possible to write good, original stories with common literary elements because it MAKES SENSE FOR YOUR STORY and not because that's just whatcha do in YA."

    Love this, Carol, and it's so true. Literary cliches are cliches because they're tried and true, and because people respond to them. The challenge is in spinning a cliche, making it original and yours.

  13. Ha ha! Eddie Sullen!
    Fun post, Carol!

  14. Great post, my friend.

    I think there is a difference between cliches that speak to unavoidable "truths" and those that are (at best) boring and (at worst) harmful or insulting.

    Is it a cliche to say that love hurts? Perhaps; in those exact words. But as a theme, it's simply a truth.

    However, cruel or narrow-minded stereotyping is to be avoided. Obviously. Unless we want our work flushed down the toilet of shame.

    Anyway, I know my WIP contains some "common" ideas, characterizations, threads (and yes, Prom Night - hooray!).

    But I have avoided making all the jocks dumb, all the cheerleaders mean, all the scholars nerds.

    I think. I hope.


  15. Love this post! Thank you, Carol!

  16. Yay! Carol's back! :) I've missed your posts, my love. Although, now, I'm kinda curious about what one DOES while working in a pickle factory...

    I agree with you. Putting a fresh spin on a common trope makes all the difference in the world. It really comes down to having really flushed out characters whose actions may lead us into a familiar part of a storyline, but are completely believable based on the people we've created. :) Though I also try to yank a twist in storylines when I've written one where a reader might think they know where it's going.

  17. Cliches are popular cause they are based in reality. However much truth there is to them is another debate. We all know them and recognize them.
    The girl in the cabin in the woods, the envious stepmother, . . .
    We like them and feel comfortable with them. They touch something inside us. Like Mac and cheese. It isn't good for you but damn it is so tasty.
    My opinion is simple. I'm no opposed to using them but try to be original. Write the best story you can but if the story in your head realy is about a cabine in the woods please don't let a cliché stop you from writing it.
    If afterwards there are some cliches no worries, I like Mac and cheese. My last story is about a young man who meets a bunch of vampires. I did t care, I gave it a new unexpected twist and had fun doing it.

  18. Fantastic post! Cliches work because they're relatable, they fit into our everyday lives, and we "get" them. Overuse is not a good thing but using a cliche to make a point is sometimes a lot more effective than trying to reinvent the wheel.

    Plus, just because they're cliches to us, doesn't mean they're overused for the teens. Most of the time, it's the first time they've seen it (unless they're super-avid readers).

    As with anything, it requires a deft hand.

  19. And let us not confuse the difference between a trope and a cliche. Tropes are fine. They are common. They are familiar. Like warm fuzzy slippers by your bed. Always there for you. So comfortable. Nothing wrong with that!

  20. So agree. And sometimes I get tired of hearing publishers say they want us to describe something differently. Sometimes the common way of describing things is okay. And we all make things unique with our unique perspective on things.

  21. I figure there's nothing new under the sun, but we can put our own twists on the stuff to make it feel new.

  22. Oooh I liked this! I figure we've all got our own original "voice" (once we find it and run with it) and so that makes our own spin unique. Sometimes it feels like so much pressure to avoid all of these pitfalls, but we still have to listen to our own gut!

  23. Ah cliques, just when I think the industry has finally moved beyond them, a big 6 publisher buys up another. They are unavoidable in the masses I fear, but in one's own writing, totally avoidable.

  24. There are some things that just belong in the story you are trying to tell...nothing wrong with that! :-)

    (I've missed you, dear!)

  25. Wow, so much to think about here. Themes can be timeless, cliched or not. Maybe adding a twist to an otherwised cliched story is a way of keeping familiar themes with a feeling of a fresh story.
    Wagging Tales

  26. I feel you must go with your instincts. I mean if you wanted to be totally unique, you could write your story in Sanskrit. But would anyone want to read it? LOL. Great post as always, Roland

  27. I'm glad you're back! Yay!

    One cliche I find seems to work well is indeed the parentless teenager. Or at least partially parentless. Harry Potter, Katniss... heck, even the Disney princesses are almost all missing their parents in some way or another. But I think that usually works to make the character seem tougher than the average kid.

  28. I think there is a place for cliches and to completely avoid them? I can't agree with that.

    We understand cliched phrases because they have been used and we're familiar with them. Face it, sometimes it's easier to get a point across by using one than searching for alternate words or scenarios.

    Over using them isn't good-I tend to think of it as being lazy. If you're creative, make up your own.

    Cliched situations? I don't know,I think it can be fun and interesting to put your own spin on one. How many times has Cinderella been used, in one form or another? How we write it makes it different.

    Interesting post, Carol. I enjoyed reading it.


  29. Erm. Of course I meant Snow White in Mirror, Mirror and not Sleeping Beauty. Sigh! LOL! Take care

  30. Excellent points! I never went to prom - homeschooled :)

  31. Great post...I'm glad to see someone take this topic on, because cliches are not always bad. It's all in which you choose and why, and how you make something your own. :)


  32. Hi Carolina! Glad to have you back in the blogging world. Great post.
    : )


  33. I've been told a few times that my novels contain certain cliches. This post really encourages me. There was one instance, especially, where I thought, "Well, maybe it's cliche because it tends to be true!" What I did in that case was weave in some more background about that particular character. I think it helped. Great post, Carolina!

  34. I love your posts - Jella and Spoons and Eddie Sullen. LOVE.

    And my ms is filled with hot boys and football jocks and Homecoming and well...it DOES make sense for my story. I very much enjoyed this post. Thanks. :)

  35. Well said! I'm feeling a little better about my wip now. :)

  36. Aw, LOVE this post! ^_^ And thank you for the reminder that common does NOT EQUAL cliche! It's all about how the writer handles those elements and executes the story!


  37. I think if cliches fall into the realm of relatable and not corny they have the potential to work.


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