Trite. Overdone. Cliché.
Personally, I hate these words. Not that they exist – I love that they exist. It makes my essays so much easier to write. I just hate it when people use them on my writing.
There’s nothing quite so disheartening as being told your work is cliché. It honestly sucks. You put so much effort and thought into this thing, and then it comes back and you’re told that someone else has already done all of it (with the implication that other people did it better, too)? This is not happy fun times.
It is so easy to fall into the trap. Sometimes it’s simply not thinking. Sometimes it happens (and I’ve seen this done) because someone knows enough about a genre to recognise the books that are pretty cliché … and then misses a shift in the clichés of the genre and runs straight into a trite character because, well, a little while ago, that would have been original.
Even more infuriating, one reader’s cliché is another reader’s tried-and-true. One reader’s trite is another reader’s poetic. You might really, really like a character type (guilty!), but do you like it so much that you repeat essentially the same character over and over again? Are you putting a fresh twist on an old plot device, or are you just retreading old ground?
Or an even greyer area – is that plot device completely overdone, or is it still fresh enough to use in service to an overall story?
This, I think, is the problem with clichés. What makes it so hard to denounce clichés entirely is the fact that you can use them and use them well, basically no matter what the context. You can also use basically any cliché badly. And just to make it interesting, it is nearly impossible to write a story without running into a cliché somewhere along the line. It takes time and experience to distinguish between something that will just generate eye-rolling and something that can be spun into something new.
For example, in today’s market, you can be pretty sure that if you put zombies in a story, you’ll basically have to be brilliant to make it not “just another zombie movie”. But you might have a great idea that could revamp the idea of a wizard’s apprentice, even though most permutations of that are probably done. Writing a romance story about vampires might be getting to the end of its trend days, but you can probably write military sci fi and make it fresh and interesting (as far as I know; it’s been a while since I ventured into the military sci fi genre).
So is there anything you can do other than develop an ‘eye’ for things?
Unfortunately, not really. Run ideas by friends who read in the genre (important: Who read in the genre) and make them ask you questions like “what makes this story different from [similar story]?”
Also make them ask you questions like “If [x], then how does/what is/where is [y]?” – applying thought and developing plot points and worlds and characters along chains of thought where each choice is cohesive with the others will make everything feel less like a collection of tropes and more like a whole that happens to involve some tropes.
Unfortunately, in the end you’ll need to read and know what’s been done in order to know how to do it better/differently. Good luck, and just remember, you didn’t stay up late reading for recreation, you stayed up late doing career-necessary research.