How to Avoid Cliches in Your Creative Work…
Ever watch a movie or a TV show and think to yourself, “Man, I’ve seen this before” or “This is a ripoff of…” Now let me ask you this — if professionals can fall victim to cliches, then how can you avoid them in your creative work? Find out in this lesson with me (Phil Svitek)! First, I define what a cliche really is and then we tackle it from a technical standpoint as well as mental. I use four simple methods to help you avoid cliches in your projects. During the lesson, I point to other works as examples (both good and bad). The good examples include Ride Along, Stephen King books, sitcoms like F is for Family, That 70s Show, The Simpsons and others. I even point to directors Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese for inspiration, along with business author Daniel Pink. Even though the episode is less than 20 minutes, it’s jam packed. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe for more lessons. And please comment below with any cliches you’ve noticed cropping up in your field. I’d love to know. As always, thank you.
SELECTED LINKS FROM EPISODE:
-100 Movie Cliches: https://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/14432/100-movie-clich-s-that-just-won-t-die
-Annoying Movie Cliches: https://diply.com/7199/24-incredibly-annoying-movie-clichs-that-never-happen-in-real-li
-How to Get Out of a Creative Rut Episode: https://philsvitek.com/how-to-get-out-of-a-creative-rut/
-Learn the Craft Episode: https://philsvitek.com/what-plagues-the-entertainment-industry-and-how-to-avoid-the-same-mistakes/
-When by Daniel Pink: https://amzn.to/2ERBJrl
-Daniel Pink Interview: https://www.tonyrobbins.com/podcasts/timing-is-everything/
-Stop Hoarding Your Ideas Episode: https://philsvitek.com/stop-hoarding-your-ideas/
-A Very LA Birthday Short Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9SHJaepE0c
-Adorama Affiliate Link: https://www.adorama.com/?utm_source=rflaid914115
Available Platforms to Watch/Listen to Show:
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Hello wonderful artist! I’m Phil Svitek and with this series it is my mission and simultaneous pleasure to help you master mental fortitude because it takes way more than just skills, talent and luck to succeed in the entertainment industry.
In this episode, I’m going to teach you how to avoid cliches in your creative projects. On the surface that may seem like a technical skill, but in order to really understand and apply it you’ll have to maintain mental resolve. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what I mean by that when the time comes.
Before I kick things off, allow me to invite you to subscribe if you haven’t already done so. Doing so will alert you of new lessons that I post. Thank you if you just subscribed.
Alright, let’s get going. First off, what is a cliche? It’s anything that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Here’s a couple of very specific cliches from movies:
- Mobile phones work almost anywhere unless it’s important that they do.
- Shooting at a lock with a pistol opens it really easily.
- In a two cop partnership, only one of them can be streetwise, own a cool car or have a family.
- A dam has only one purpose, to break.
- People marooned on desert islands soon learn to make almost anything from bamboo.
So that gives you five of them. I’ve included a link in the description to an article that highlights more if you want to check it out.
The ones I mentioned might not seem so bad. And if done right, the cliches I mentioned won’t bother audiences that much. For example, Ride Along falls victim to the two cop partnership cliche and yet is a hilarious movie. Where cliches become a problem is when they dictate the core of your work. That’s the inherent problem with any creative work. From its inception, an idea is riddled with cliches.
For those of you who have been following this series know that I encourage everyone to be as creative as possible. As part of that, it is my belief that we’re all capable of having many ideas. That’s part of the brain’s primary function. To think. And if fact, most of us can think of many ideas that we then call our artist vision. Some of the ideas we think of we filter out. We say to ourselves, “That’s no good.” The ones that pass this filter become “good ideas”. And the ones that we think are really good we get so excited about that we just want to get going on. That’s fantastic! And it is not my intent to diminish your enthusiasm, but here’s a truth; any idea that you have at the onset of a creative project is bound to be riddled with cliche.
Don’t worry. This is not an isolated issue. This certainly applies to me but it also applies to the greatest artists, whether past or present. It applies to everyone. At the core of any idea, no matter how unique it feels, is actually just influenced by certain aspects of things seen during our lives.
Now, I’m not assigning a judgment value. Your ego may be saying that right now — it might be telling you all your ideas are great and that what I’m saying is B.S. But it’s just not true. Ideas are riddled with cliches. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing or there’s anything wrong with you. It just is what it is. I’m not discouraging you to toss out an idea because it begins with cliched elements. When you have an idea that compels you, well then, there’s an obvious feeling behind it. A feeling of joy, excitement, whatever. Let’s call it passion. I don’t want you to lose that passion. Like I said, everyone’s initial idea has cliches. Great art puts an idea through the ringer and squeezes as many cliches out of it as possible until the only thing that’s left is its universal beauty that resonates deeply with audiences worldwide, across time.
That is the goal, certainly for me, and it’s why we love to consume art — because it forges a human connection with us through the story’s universal truth. And in order for your art to resonate in such a deep and impactful way, you have to strip it of cliches. It might seem ironic that in order for a piece of work to contain universal truth, you must eliminate the cliches. But the reason this works is because if you rid cliches from your work then all that’s left is a profound truth, told from your unique point of view that draws people in and demands their attention.
In order to achieve this, the answer is simple. Simple, but not always easy. What you must do is work. You must hone that idea and question it from all angles. Examine it to get to the piece of art that you’re really after. Deep down, what are you trying to convey? Cliches crop up because we’re too afraid to release our ideas into the world and so we try to protect it with aspects people are already familiar with. Don’t be afraid. Work through this fear. Keep discovering your true intent. Often times, that’s what makes the act of creating something exhilarating — we learn about ourselves through our art. That is your task. That is the artist’s journey — work hard in order to bring your art and message to the world.
Part of the work is having patience because it will take time. This is the mental aspect I alluded to earlier. The more quickly you try to rush the creative process, the more cliches will be evident in your work. I see this all the time with Hollywood movies. Large sections of the film seem under developed and when I do my research it’s because the writers or director needed to make a decision fast. They were rushed to complete a deadline rather than complete a work of art.
If the project you’re working on is your own, like a passion project, give it the time it needs. Your desire is to get it done. It’s going to be burning inside you. Trust me, I get it. I tend to be quite impatient. I always want my projects done yesterday. Doesn’t work like that though. The more I push based on completion time, the worse the result it. The more relaxed I am and the more I focus on the creative side, the reason why I began the project, the better it becomes. So spend time developing a project, working it, reworking it and revising it until it’s as good as you can make it. You might hit some mental walls but don’t give up. If you find yourself stuck, check out my episode called How to Get Out of a Creative Rut. In that lesson I offer many ways to overcome such challenges.
So, that’s the first method for avoiding cliches – patiently work on your project until you eliminate them. But that raises a good question. How do you know what’s a cliche and what’s not? Well, in order to identify them in your work, you must have a wealth of information to be able to measure against.
What do I mean by this?
You have to be an avid appreciator of the arts. If you love poetry and that’s what you want to write, then you have to read works by other poets. Study poetry so that way when you sit down to write you can know what’s good about poetry and apply it to your drafts. This is called craft. You’ll learn the techniques and perhaps eventually be able to break the so-called rules to invent something new. But also by enjoying other people’s works, you’ll start to be influenced by their art and be able to identify aspects that you’re simply mimicking in your own work versus drawing inspiration from. The wider the range of work you take in, the more cliches you can spot and eradicate from your own projects. Don’t limit yourself. Rom-coms are not my favorite genre of movies. And yet I go see them to make sure I understand them. Same thing with horror movies. For years, I avoided horror movies. Maybe I was scared. Now I love them. The best ones utilize such great artistry in terms of sound design, camera work, acting, etc. They are able to build moments of tension. By watching them, I’ve learned to develop more suspense without dialogue in my scenes even when it’s not a horror film. By the way, bad horror films are some of the most cliche movies out there. They end up relying on jump scares rather than building meaningful story to ramp up our fears. That’s why I caution you, start by studying the best. Some term this as “study the classics”. I agree with this. Learn how a medium developed over time and begin to see how one piece of art informed and led to another. The greatest works of art are termed that way because collectively we have agreed that it holds value. Those works utilize amazing craftsmanship and storytelling to convey a universal truth. You can study other works too, but I warn you that often what makes other works not deemed as masterpieces is that they are filled with cliches. And I don’t want you picking up bad habits. Start with the good stuff first, then expand.
By the way, successful artists advocate consuming as much art as you can too. Stephen King says that those who don’t have the time to read, can’t write. Whether you like his writing or not, I think we can all agree objectively Stephen King is a successful writer. His output is amazing. But did you know he reads even more verotiously than he writes? It’s insane. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino watches so many movies. Martin Scorsese is the same way. They have a love for the cinema. So do the same. Really take in more than you create so you learn what works and what doesn’t and therefore you can create something uniquely yours in an otherwise specific framework.
An easy example of this is sitcoms, which stands for situational comedies, most of which are about families with a mom, dad and a couple of kids. On the surface that sounds dry but look at Family Matters, F is for Family, That 70s Show, All in the Family, The Simpsons, Black-ish, Family Guy and so on — each of these is vastly different from the rest. Beyond the family aspect, what makes them work is the number of jokes per minute and furthermore, they’re not recycling jokes from other places. They are coming up with their own. If they borrowed from other sources, audiences wouldn’t laugh because they heard it before. It’s called the law of diminishing returns. That’s what the byproduct of a cliche is when all is said and done. So take the framework of great art but fill it with your voice. And the more you immerse yourself in art, the easier this becomes, especially when you combine it with your hard, diligent and patient work ethic. Develop these good habits.
Speaking of good habits, it’s very important to learn when you work best. It’s an aspect we don’t think about often. Business author Daniel Pink, who has written books such as When, Drive and A Whole New Mind, noticed that we generally schedule parts of our life based on availability rather than timing. In this sense timing refers to the time of day that’s best fitted for a task. If you’re most energetic and creative in the morning, you should do your work then. If it’s at night, do it then. The reason for this is because when your mind isn’t at its creative, you’re much more apt to fill your work with cliches. Don’t get me wrong, if all you have is an hour to dedicate after a grueling workday, then utilize it because you can always revise something. But there will come a point where you’ll need to assess your work from a clear and fresh perspective. This can only happen when you’re at your best — when you’re energized, your mind is creative and you’re excited to tackle it, rather than seeing it as a chore. As much as you can, work from that state of being. Discover when that is. For more information on this idea, pick up Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It’s a great read. Or you can listen to him on Tony Robbin’s podcast.
The last component to avoiding cliches is to get feedback from others. Try as we might, we’re not always going to be able to spot problems in our own work. It’s a symptom of being too close and invested in the work. You’ve been in the trenches day to day. They haven’t. They have a more bird’s eye view of your work. Asking those you trust to constructively critique your work will offer you valuable insights. So don’t be afraid to ask for it. In fact, I encourage you to talk about your ideas from inception to gauge reaction from people. The earlier you do this, the more work you can avoid. You’ll know which aspects of your idea have cliches and your mind can begin to solve for them. I did a whole lesson on why you should never hoard your ideas and avoiding cliches was one of the reasons. I welcome you to check out that episode as well in case you’re on the fence about discussing your ideas, especially early on.
There you have it. Those are the simple ways to avoid cliches in your creative work:
- Have patience while you diligently examine and sculpt your project
- Study the craft by immersing yourself in other people’s art
- Schedule to work on your art at times when you’re most creative and energetic, and
- Ask for feedback
Simple right? Simple, maybe, but easier said than done. But you can do it. I know it. And when you do, your art will speak and affect people out in the world. That’s a great gift you’re able to impart to the world.
Well, that’s a wrap. But don’t click away to another lesson just yet because I’d love to hear from you! What cliches do you see in your field? Let me know. Also, if you’re ever finding that your work has cliches, you can always review the transcript of this episode to help you out. And my website has tons of other free resources. Links are provided below. Also, I invite you to check out my most recent short film called A Very LA Birthday. It’s 5 minutes and it would mean a lot if you checked it out. Lastly, a huge thank you to the people that helped make this episode possible. If you too would like to support this show, you can either head on over to my Patreon or sport some merch from my store. Or you can just tell a friend about this show. Thanks for tuning in. I’m @PhilSvitek on social media and I’ll see you next Wednesday with another lesson. Bye!