How to avoid clichés in writing: Story Themes

How to avoid clichés in writing: Story Themes


If you want to be a successful author, learn  how to avoid clichés in writing on popular themes. Many of the same themes are explored repeatedly in fiction without being reduced to clichés, and you can do the same by understanding what makes themes strong, what the clichés of your genre are, and how to create complexity within a theme.

In order to avoid clichéd themes, you need to first understand what a theme is. It is not the same thing as a plot or a story. A theme is also more than just a subject; it is a complete idea. A theme takes a stand and puts forth an argument. Your theme might be that ultimately every human being is alone in the universe or it might be the opposite – that none of us are truly alone. However, a theme is not a question: “Are humans ultimately all alone?” It is also not the identification of a topic such as the place of humans in the universe or a motif like man versus nature.

Why does your novel need a theme at all? Whether the author intends it or not, every story has a theme. The danger in not choosing your theme and shaping your story to fit that theme is that you may end up with a theme that you don’t intend or a theme that is muddled or contradictory. Failing to choose a theme may also mean that you inadvertently end up with a theme that is a cliché.

What is a clichéd theme?
There are many views on story themes. One is that there are no clichéd themes; there are simply clichéd or simplistic approaches to them. The other is that a clichéd theme is fundamentally flawed from the outset; it is a shallow statement that ultimately offers little for the writer or reader to explore.

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 both universal and profound. In a good theme, there should be scope for an enormous amount of exploration across cultures and patterns of thought.

As such, it is unlikely that a clichéd theme has fallen into that state through overuse. More likely, the clichéd theme was never a good one to begin with.

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

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 sacrifice everything in the pursuit of material wealth only to end up unhappy at the end of it all as well as stories about people who give up material wealth in order to seek happiness.

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 gatsbyplenty 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” to suggest that we are always more tightly bonded to people we are related to by blood than to those we are not. However, if we look around at our lives and the lives of those around us, this is demonstrably not always true.
  • Is it universal? The reason great literature survives is because it speaks to us across cultures and time periods. Whether or not your theme is universal may also be a good gauge as to whether it has the heft to carry your novel. You don’t need to aim to write timeless fiction that will be read for hundreds of years, but your theme still needs to speak to people on a deep level.
  • Is is something you have seen explored 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. Similarly, editors will sometimes complain that in the wake of some current events, they will get a flood of fiction dealing with that same topic. Try to avoid what’s trendy.

Know your genre
Having a strong background in the genre in which you are writing can help you avoid clichéd themes. In many cases, identifying these clichéd themes can be the canary in a coal mine to signal to you that there are other problems with your story. 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. The first is one theme of the classic novel Frankenstein; the second is a message that permeates many good books, television shows and movies even today while the third might be said to describe a considerable amount of the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Yet all of these stories are still engaging to readers today. How can a writer be sure that a particular theme is still fresh enough to work with?

One point to keep in mind is that rules are made to be broken. A writer who can bring the level of skill to their fiction that Mary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe did can most likely get away with just about any theme.

However, even those of us who aren’t Shelleys or Poes can learn to take fresh approaches to old themes. You should know your genre well enough to avoid themes that everyone is tired of at the moment. At the same time, since themes should be universal and meaningful to most people, there is a limit to just how unique you can be.

In the end, it is not so much the theme itself but your approach to the theme that lifts it above cliché and turns it into a profound exploration of the human condition.

Moving beyond cliché
Themes stumble into the territory of cliché when writers lack sincerity, concreteness and complexity in their approach.

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?

Like all good writers, Niffenegger got concrete. Her star-crossed – or, more accurately, time-crossed – lovers were carefully developed characters. They felt like real people and not like figures created as mouthpieces for the author’s ideas.

niffeneggerNiffenegger 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. While it is important to understand the genre in which you are writing and contemporary overused ideas, the key to a theme that is not clichéd is a rigorous examination of its implications. Niffenegger successfully did this in The Time Traveller’s Wife.

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. You may need to revise your story in order to reinforce the theme and make it consistent, but a theme that is not clichéd arises from a story that is not clichéd.

Just as many stories can be reduced to a simple sentence or two that may sound similar to many other stories, themes at their essence may sound simple. Yet the talented writer explores them and imbues them with a complexity that rejects clichéd interpretations.

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

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