Writing advice from a six-year-old: Bewaaare the dark and stormy cliche


My daughter, wife and I sat in the TV room. It was just before bedtime and my six-year-old was watching a movie she hadn’t seen in a while.

My wife and I were trying to talk to her about the actors involved, the special effects, the storyline, how the movie wouldn’t be so spooky if it happened in real life… You know: All the usual stuff parents distract themselves with when they’re desperately trying to avoid having to actually watch a particularly bad kid’s movie.

My daughter watched the movie for another moment, then she looked at me and said:

“All bad guys always brag about themselves.”

Whoa.

I was impressed. The blanket statement wasn’t really something you can apply to all villains, but from someone with her level of exposure to “bad guys”, it was very observant.

This revelation came from the mind of a child raised on Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. (Yeah, I see problems with that list, too. My wife and I know there’s a problem and we’re trying to fix it.)

In storytelling, it’s a tricky situation. We want to avoid cliches because they can make for a predictable and by-the-numbers story. However, we still want to introduce conflict, adventure, appealing characters and all the ingredients that make a great story, and there are a limited number of ways to do that. 

Granted, sometimes celebrating a cliche leads to great entertainment. The movie Office Space, the TV series South Park and the movie series Austin Powers are good examples. I see those as something to work up to, but they’re not something to emulate unless you understand what makes them work.

"You've won this round, He-Man, but I'll get you next time... Neeext tiiime!"

Some people (think Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit) tell brilliant stories without falling into many cliches – I remember when I watched “The Wrong Trousers” for the first time, I was amazed at the creativity of such a unique and entertaining story. Yet for a plotline, it used a cliche of a jewelry heist. I didn’t care (until writing this article, I never even noticed), because everything surrounding it is so well done.

My point in writing this is to illustrate how cliches are sometimes necessary as part of standard story structure, but when done incorrectly they can make your story formulaic. A six-year-old may like it. Your intended audience may not. So be careful. Beware the dark and stormy cliches. Determine if they’re really needed, or if you can change them into something more creative and surprising.

One predictable cliche is that, when writing an article about cliches, I finish by using one. Instead, I’d rather wrap up with advice I’ll remember for my own writing, as a paraphrased recommendation from my daughter:

“Bad guys don’t need to brag about themselves.”

One comment

  1. I also recently realized that at the base of every story…is a simple cliche. And this realization was made by someone who used to *hate* cliches. Now I’m realizing, they’re inevitable, they’re part of life, and you’re right: it’s about all the stuff the cliche is padded with.

    As you said about not noticing before, only now did I realize that Office Space (great movie) is based on *such* a cliche (people hate their boring jobs)! Haha.

    I’m sharing your article. I really liked it.