Cliche. “Never include them in your work.” “Avoid them like the plague.” “Cliches are the death of creativity.” “Strive to work past cliches.” So, what are they, are they really that bad, why do we use them all the time when we hear that they’re bad, and how do we avoid them?
A cliche is an expression that is so commonly used that has either lost its original meaning and impact, or has become trite and irritating in the process. Like starting off a paper with a dictionary definition of the subject you’re hoping to explore. The term comes from the olden days of typesetting when individual letter stamps were put together to form the plate that was inked and then pressed onto paper to form things like newspapers. To speed up the process, common words and phrases were bound together into one piece to drop into place. Think of it as auto-complete for the analog age. They were created to save time, but the assembly line aspect that is their reason for existence is also why they’re not that interesting.
Cliches become prevalent for the same reason that sequels and re-makes are popular: they’re proven. The risk in using them is low. Repeating someone else’s idea that has been proven to convey what is intended is less risky than using an original idea which has not yet been proven. It takes time to explore ideas and come up with new expressions. When there’s a deadline looming, it is just easier to use something that has worked out before that can be plugged in, just like in the original sense of the word. The problem is, they just aren’t that interesting. The trade off for convenience is boredom, and in entertainment, that’s not really acceptable. So what is to be done?
When we try to come up with choices for our work, in acting or composition or form or motion, the ideas that come to mind first are usually the most common. They are the ideas that are on the surface of our mind. There’s an argument that says this is the “instinctual” response, and therefore the best, but I disagree. What comes to mind first is what we’ve seen the most of ourselves. It is not so much an exploration as it is an imitation – essentially “monkey see, monkey do”. Now, some people can get away with this because their particular background is very, very, different from the rest of us, but for the most part what the majority of us come up with is pure cliche.
To break past cliche, the method that seems to work the best for me is what I call Boredom and the Rule of Five – make five attempts or variations on something (an acting choice, a gesture, a plot point, etc) and the fifth will probably be the most original. Now, I didn’t completely come up with the Rule of Five on my own. I owe that to an instructor from Pixar who did a lecture for Animation Mentor on story. Here’s the gist: As we all know from Schoolhouse Rock, ‘three’ is a magic number. We tend to remember things in threes. There’s a phenomenon known as the clustering illusion which is the basis for the saying that celebrity deaths occur in threes (they don’t, we just stop counting at three making artificial clusters). It’s a real powerful tendency for we humans, so the trick is to make this tendency work for us. Just like you don’t want to save the first part of a moonshine distillate* you don’t want the first ideas that come to mind. The first three ideas you have will be, for the most part, things you have seen and done before. Because of this strong attraction to sets of three, we want to stop there. By making a list longer than three, we get bored with the old ideas. After all, we’ve seen them many, many times before. Therefore, the fourth attempt at something is breaking away from the boredom of the cliche, but it may have a bit of the old ideas left in it as residue. The fifth attempt then is where we start to see the unique ideas emerge.
I have a pet notion that boredom itself drives curiosity and creativity because the mind is seeking to distract itself from the boredom at hand. Rather than avoid it, this boredom is the key to creating original work. The unfortunate catch is, to get to the original ideas, you have to go through the cliches first i.e. get bored with the repetition. Let them use us up and get burnt out so we’re looking around for something else with which to replace them. The boredom burns the dross out of our system.
So my proposal is in your spare time, practice cliches. Below is a list of cliches that I saw in a morning of viewing cartoons. Take each one and practice it. Do them until you’re sick of them and never want to do them again. You’ll find yourself automatically rebelling against the boredom and coming up with new and innovative ways to do or express the same thing, simply to entertain yourself.
A LIST OF CLICHES TO PRACTICE
The Three Point Landing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgOtPXDyKjA)
Blinking into a bright light while shielding your eyes
The “Whew” Sigh, wiping forehead with the back of your hand is optional.
Placing a hand on the shoulder for encouragement
The Claw Hand of Surging Power (DC and Marvel approved!). Yell at the same time and it becomes…
The Balrog Roar (face forward, hands back in fists)
Hit a wall and slide down
Stopping in front of an enemy with a martial arts pose to thwart forward progress. This can be with or without Bruce Lee’s ‘come at me bro’ hand wave (which may actually be a part of a form in Wing Chun, a sort of ‘tick off your enemy into attacking’ move. I’m not sure).
Double fisted ground thump (a Hulk favorite)
Flat back smash into the wall, peel off and fall face first onto the floor
From a prone position, one hand reaching out, saying a name, and then passing out
That’s probably enough to get you started.
*Not that I’m in the habit of illegally distilling alcohol. I happened to watch a season of “Moonshiners” recently and it’s been on the brain.