The Girl Who Kicked the Cliché

Everywhere you look––in planes, trains, cafes and parks, somebody is reading a book with a title that begins with, “The Girl…” 

Author, Stieg Larsson didn’t live to see the blockbuster success of his trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. He died of a heart attack before the first book was published and the 46 million copies sold world-wide.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reviewed a new book called On Stieg Larsson, which includes an exchange of emails between him and his book editor.

What’s instructive about the correspondence is how Larsson deliberately set out to disrupt the conventions of the crime novel. “I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels. I have used some techniques that are normally outlawed,” he writes.

Stieg Larsson sparked a global publishing phenomenon by creating characters who are “drastically different” from those who typically appear in crime novels. Your ambitions may not include a best-selling crime novel, but Larsson’s approach can be used just as effectively by anyone who’s willing to challenge the status quo––whatever business you’re in.

Deny the clichés

The denial method works by completely dumping key aspects of a cliché.

Stieg Larsson denied the standard clichés for role of his detective. He explains, “Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn't have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn't listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model airplanes.”

Invert the clichés

If there’s an action, look at the opposite action. If there’s a one-way relationship between two parties, flip the direction.

Larsson inverted the relationship between his two lead characters: “I have also deliberately changed the sex roles: In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical ‘bimbo,’ while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical ‘male’ characteristics and values.”

Scale the clichés

Each of us has a highly developed sense of the natural size and proportions of the world and the products around us. So, when items in a given situation are out of proportion with each other, it immediately grabs our attention. What is scarce that you can make abundant? What is small that you can make big?

Larsson scaled the role of his secondary characters: “I have devoted an awful lot of space to secondary characters who, in several respects, play just as big a role as the main characters… This is wholly intentional on my part. I think that secondary characters can often be much more exciting than the main player.”

Many clichés are still around for no other reason than “we’ve always done it this way.” So take Stieg Larsson’s lead. Look at the conventions in your industry from the inside out, upside down, backward, and forward.