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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Clichés as Themes for Novels

cj Sez:  How does one come up with an idea for a novel? 

I usually find something in the news, but that’s too incredibly ominous and ugly right now. So, let’s get lighter. First, let's agree that novels need a theme, a premise on which to hang the action and plot points. An overall theme continues as a thread through the novel. It lets a writer connect the dots of subplots to the main plot. One way to get a handle on finding your theme/premise might be to think about describing your novel in one sentence, as with a cliché. Of course, you wouldn’t really use the cliché as part of a back of the book blurb, just the idea of it should help polish the brief paragraph.

Caveat:  A cliché is, by definition, a trite and overused expression . . . a figure of speech that has become tiresome and uninteresting. Several experts advise against the use of clichés in your narrative. In fact, author and editor Sol Stein has this advice: “Cut every cliché you come across. Say it new and say it straight” (Stein on Writing, 1995).

Clichés are those taboo things that writers should avoid like the plague, but they can be good fodder for this exercise. Think about it. For a romance story, how about this? “Love will find a way.” Then every time you put an obstacle in a character’s path on the way to her/his happily ever after, that obstacle can be overcome with some kind of act of love . . . even self-love (conceit, egotism) is fair game. 

For a love story (which doesn’t always end happily ever after): “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” 

Or how about this for a YA or memoir: “A coming of age story.” That old saw keeps the threads of the story tied to some agonizing affliction and growth of young people over a longer time span. 

A possible theme for Choosing Carter, my latest novel, could be “My brother’s keeper.” The novel is about an American woman that wants to extract her brother from a domestic terrorist cell. I’ve alluded to it in my marketing blurbs. 

What if one of your characters is fond of vocalizing clichés? I say, okay. Use them, but only in that character’s dialogue. Another warning here: Too much/too often can become distracting to your readers. Even Stein's new and straight words can become hackneyed when used too often.

I’m going have another go at my latest WIP’s theme and premise with clichés in mind. Wish me luck, and I wish you luck with yours. If you have a different way of working on the theme/premise of your stories, let me know how you do it. I love, love, love learning new methodologies.

In the meantime, you-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.

Choosing Carter  -- Kindle  /  Nook  /  Kobo   /  iTunes/iBook
Deadly Star --  Kindle  / Nook  / Kobo
PS The toons are from Facebook. 


  1. I'm a true pantser, so I often don't know my theme til I write the ending. I see which way it twists, see if I like it, then go back through and weave it into my ms. Very scientific approach, hehe

    1. I kind of work that way. I'm a pantser/pathfinder, I guess, because I do have a theme in mind. Thanks for stopping by, Candice. Wish you great sales and wonderful reviews.

  2. I remember reading a review of my first romance novel. The reviewer called it a "Cinderella Story," and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand there was a theme of "poor girl dazzles wealthy important man." On the other hand, hadn't I been more original than that?? Well, both hands held some truth, and I came to see the wisdom of knowing the archetypal story or eternal truth behind each of my books, along with insuring each offered a fresh take, compelling conflicts, and engaging characters. Thanks, CJ, for a thought-provoking post!! --kate

    1. I probably would have had mixed feelings as well. I think we writers tend to think of such statements negatives when, in fact, it's simply recognizing the style. The story of Ruth in the Bible is such a story...ergo, there is nothing written today that hasn't been done before. It's how "fresh" the voice is that makes it interesting. Sending best wishes future successes.


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