Use Clichés to Find Your Theme
How Do You Start Your Memoir?
You start with an idea — that magical moment when something sparks the desire to write. It might be a title that suddenly pops into your head, a concept that lights you up, a lightbulb moment, a realization or epiphany that lets all the puzzle pieces of your life fall into place. However it happens, you are inspired and you want to write your story.
For the most part, you likely already have a rough notion of what story you want to tell. It’s about a character (you) who has experienced events which illustrate a universal truth, a life lesson or message you want to share with your reader. You have the beginning of a STORY (wooHOO!), and you can’t wait to tell it to the world!
But… there’s STUFF you need to do before you can share it with readers. A lot of stuff. And that takes some planning.
You need to let your reader know, right from the get-go what kind of story it will be. And for that to happen, you need to know what kind of story it will be. It might be a drama, a comedy, a thriller, a mystery, a romance. It might be a cautionary tale, a healing journey, a point of view or an opinion. It might be simply you, recounting how you got to where you are, but until you know the point of your story, you’ll have trouble explaining it to your reader.
The Controlling Idea
If you’re new to memoir, then having some inkling of the basic premise that controls your story’s narrative can be vastly useful. But how do you arrive at your controlling idea?
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll know exactly what your story will be about — its point, its theme, its raison d’être, but you will have some idea because it’s exactly that point that makes your inspiration so exciting. Somehow it touched something deep inside you that you know is significant, and it’s that “something” that you feel impelled to share with the world.
No matter how the idea for your story has come to you, you need to determine your overarching theme. It’s the one idea that controls the entire narrative. Until you have that central concept, you won’t know which of the events in your life are relevant to the story.
How to Use Clichés in Thematic Development
Clichés are phrases that have been around for long enough to become an accepted part of the language landscape. They’ve been repeated so often that they’ve accumulated associations beyond the meaning of the words that comprise them.
Even when the phrase itself no longer has much connection to the actual words — “dead as a doornail” comes to mind — most people know what they mean. A cliché is like a writing shortcut: a set of words that already carry all of the meaning you want to use.
From ProWritingAid.com: A cliché is a tired, stale phrase or idiom that, because of overuse, has lost its impact. What was once a fresh way of looking at something has become a weak prop for writing that feels unimaginative and dull. Clichés are what you write when you don’t have the energy or inspiration to think of a new way to express an idea.
When you’re writing your first draft and getting the ideas down as fast as you can without editing or polishing, it’s okay to use clichés when a cliché perfectly describes your situation. But it’s lazy writing.
You want your writing to be original, so when you get to the revision phase of your work, you’ll want to edit and polish your prose, replacing any clichés and coming up with metaphors and similes that are fresh and descriptive, ones that haven’t been used so many times they’ve lost all impact.
Cliché as Thematic Controlling Idea
However, when you’re trying to formulate your theme, often a cliché is the best way for you to think about it. When it’s the controlling idea that runs beneath, around and through all the anecdotes and scenes that make up your memoir, even though you haven’t spelled it out explicitly your readers will understand and recognize it.
Many memoirs are based on themes that appear to be clichés, but the reason clichés have come to be clichés, is because they encapsulate universal human truths which we all recognize. Themes like: love conquers all, good triumphs over evil, or, it’s better to be poor and honest than rich and ruthless.
The clichés that work best as memoir themes are often illustrations of the ethical and moral precepts that guide our decisions. They’re usually emotion-based and describe the ups and downs of life:
- All that glitters is not gold — disappointment
- All for one and one for all — loyalty
- Opposites attract — open-mindedness
- Every cloud has a silver lining — optimism
- Don’t cry over spilled milk — dealing with hardship
- All is fair in love and war — determination
- It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all — A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.
- Time heals all wounds — acceptance
- What goes around comes around — justice
- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade — a positive attitude
- With experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes experience — life lessons
- Sometimes you must rebel against the status quo — standing up for beliefs, values
- Never, never give up — persistence
- The value of working as a team — co-operation vs. competition
- Be careful what you wish for — unexpected consequences
- Follow your imagination — creativity, originality
- Life doesn’t always have happy endings — surrender to the inevitable
- Belief in a higher power — faith
Perhaps your story idea may be based on a cliché, but if it rings true for you, go with it.
It’s a cliché because it’s universal, an idea common to everyone, and if you want your story to resonate with readers, they must be able to relate to it. Just try to find your own original way to convey the meaning of the story without, (you’ll pardon the expression) “sounding like a broken record”.
P.S. — Here’s a link to some more Thematic Concepts where you can find additional possibilities for your memoir’s theme. If you start from the negative elements and emotional wounds on the right side of the chart and take your protagonist through a journey of growth and transformation to one or more of the elements on the left side of the chart, you’ll have the foundation of a powerful and compelling narrative theme.