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How to avoid clichés in writing: Story themes

To be an original writer, it’s important to learn  how to avoid clichés. Many of the same themes are explored often in fiction without being reduced to clichés. You can do the same by understanding what the clichés of your genre are, and how to create your own, varied treatment:

To be an original writer, it’s important to learn  how to avoid clichés. Many of the same themes are explored often in fiction without being reduced to clichés. You can do the same by understanding what the clichés of your genre are, and how to create your own, varied treatment:

First: What is theme in a story?

Theme is not the same thing as a plot. The dictionary definition of ‘theme’ is: ‘An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.’ (via Oxford Dictionaries Online).

The example Lexico gives is ‘love and honour are the pivotal themes of the Hornblower books.’ A theme may be a grand, abstract subject (such as love or honour) or something more specific (for example a complete idea such as ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’).

Why does your novel need a theme at all? Whether the author intends it or not, every story has a theme or themes. Whether it’s ‘the dangers of technological progress’ (a common sci-fi concern) or ‘love knows no boundaries’.

Second, what is a clichéd theme?

Some say there are no clichéd themes; there are simply clichéd or simplistic approaches to them.

We normally talk about clichés as words, phrases or ideas that are overused. However, the very strength of themes is their resilience for being reused and explored over and over. A good theme is broad enough to allow for countless varied treatments.

As such, it is unlikely that a clichéd theme is considered to be so because of overuse. More often, the clichéd theme was never credible to begin with.

Therefore, the first step in avoiding a clichéd theme is to start with an understanding of what makes a strong theme.

What are elements of a strong theme?

“Money can’t buy happiness” is certainly a cliché, but (as F. Scott Fitzgerald shows in The Great Gatsby), it is also a powerful statement of truth.

Although The Great Gatsby was written nearly 100 years ago, ‘money can’t buy happiness’ is a theme that still gets successfully explored today.

We are still drawn to stories about people who, like Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, sacrifice everything in the pursuit of material wealth only to end up unhappy.

This theme remains powerful because it is something that humans have grappled with across societies and cultures and will probably always grapple with. There is plenty of room to explore its implications in many different genres or settings.

Here are a few questions you can ask to test the strength of a theme you are considering.

  • Is it true? This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s surprising how many ideas we have internalised that don’t really hold up. For example, we say that “blood is thicker than water” (meaning that family ties endure above all). However, if we look around at our lives and the lives of those around us, this is demonstrably not always true
  • Is it universal? Great literature survives because it speaks to us across cultures and time periods. You don’t need to aim to write timeless fiction that will be read for hundreds of years, but your themes still need to speak to people on a deeper level
  • Have you seen this theme cropping up in books a lot lately? While the great themes will always be with us, sometimes there will be a glut of books or movies on a particular theme, and in those cases, even the strongest themes can come to feel like clichés

How to avoid cliched themes - Khaled Hosseini on family themes | Now Novel

Avoiding clichéd themes: Know your genre

Having a strong background in the genre in which you are writing can help you avoid clichéd themes.

A clichéd theme specific to a certain genre is often part of a story that has tired and overused ideas. Here are a few examples:

  • A science fiction story might warn readers about the dangers of tampering with nature or of acquiring too much knowledge
  • A crime story might set out to convince the reader that crime does not pay
  • A horror story might demonstrate that bad things happen to bad people

These are all overdone themes within their genres. Yet even these overdone themes have their places.

How can a writer be sure that a particular theme is still fresh enough to work with?

Writing themes quote - Jeff Nichols | Now Novel

Moving beyond cliché

Themes stumble into the territory of cliché when writers treat their themes with insufficient sincerity, for one.

A cynical approach to a theme will show, and the theme will appear clichéd because the writer clearly had less interest in exploring the theme than in exploiting it.

Few themes sound as clichéd as “love conquers all,” and yet this is arguably one powerful theme of the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife. How did author Audrey Niffenegger move beyond this cliché?

Niffenegger grounded her characters and her story in specific detail, but she went a step further. She complicated her theme. The Time Traveller’s Wife also deals with questions about love, identity and the communication problems that occur in any relationship. Niffenegger also examines free will and destiny.

Stating a theme involves boiling down the essence of a story, and this is why when we speak of themes we so often do so in clichés.

However, on closer examination, the most powerful themes are anything but clichés.

You may wonder how you are supposed to do all of these things with theme while you are telling a story, and the answer is that your focus should be on the story.

If the story that you are telling is well-plotted with developed characters, and if you have taken care to examine the implications of your story, a complex and engaging theme should emerge naturally.

Share your writing with others for feedback to root out cliches and make sure your writing is original.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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