7. Use Familiar "Clichés" in New Ways

7.     Twist a cliché.  Do something new with the tried and the true. Use the clichéd plot not as something to reproduce faithfully, but as a classic human drama to explore in a new way.  Show the human depth under the stereotype: the blonde bombshell who walks into the private eye’s office is worried because her elderly neighbor won’t answer the door.
Using the familiar conventions of your genre or story type will let you lull the readers into comfort... while the "twist" will jolt them into new excitement. You can juxtapose the old with the new to reveal facets of each. Just consider how vital an old story like Romeo and Juliet becomes when the basic plot is set in the tenements of New York (West Side Story), or is rendered in a new way (like my friend Judith Whitmore's graphic novel).

Example: JK Rowling's entire Harry Potter series twists many clichés of the late, lamented "boarding school dramas" which were popular in Britain in the mid-20th Century. (There were similar books in the US-- A Separate Peace being perhaps the most notable-- and I still see echoes of that old genre in newer books like The Goldfinch and Fates and Furies.) These books presented a static world with all sorts of expectations and rules, but above all were about children finding ways to belong-- in a world of children, with adults and especially parents as mere visitors or minor characters.
Rowling's twist was, of course, to make Hogwarts a boarding school for wizard and witch children. As exotic as that twist is, it gains more resonance by being juxtaposed against the familiar tropes of the boarding school stories-- the different "houses" with their common rooms, the sense of the school as a fortress against the outside world, the examinations and school supplies. Rowling makes great use of the school year as a time-setting-- each book in the series takes place in a year of Harry's schooling, so the first book is set during his first year at Hogwarts, and the last book in his final year before graduation.

Your turn! Think about your story and what basic category of fiction or story structure it might echo. This might not have anything to do with the actual genre of your story-- more about the structure. (For example, the Umberto Eco literary novel Name of the Rose used a format very similar to the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.) What movie or book or story or myth do you want sort of nagging at the reader's mind while reading your book? ("This story takes place in deep space, but you know, weirdly, I'm reminded of those surfer films of the early 60s!")
Now jot down a few "tropes" or "conventions" from the other category. You know-- "Those surfer movies always had bonfire parties at the end, and the main character was usually kind of shy and new at surfing, not one of the champions. And there was always a moment when he doubted himself, but found himself being encouraged by someone unlikely. Also, there were those strange long sequences where all the guys lovingly and lavishly polished their boards."

 What use can you make of the familiar events or themes from the old story type? Think about set-pieces (like the "singalong scene" in so many films... including in Casablanca, where the singalong is actually a verbal duel between the Resistance and the Nazis.) Also think about time-frames like the surfing season or an election, or clichés like "the makeover where the nerdy girl is transformed to a glamor-gal" and how you can twist that (the nerdy girl is transformed into a vampire, maybe). Just remember to use enough of the old so that the readers will appreciate your subversion of the cliché.
(Cover of Judith Whitmore's graphic "twisting" of Romeo and Juliet.)