Clichés: All things in moderation.

One of the biggest obstacles of writing an original work is trying to avoid clichés. It’s not easy. You run into them in your daily life constantly so it’s only natural when they come out in your writing. Yes, a great deal of them are so bad that they make your brain hurt just reading them.

  • In the nick of time
  • Fit as a fiddle
  • Cat got your tongue?
  • Thick as thieves

But clichés are not solely found as a simple phrase. A lot of the time, especially when writing a fiction novel, an entire scenario, scene, or even a plot can be one of those dreaded clichés. We all do it. It’s something constantly found in many first drafts. It’s very natural to fall into these little traps until our muse finds us and we start to get our footing. The good news is that most of these transgressions are re-sculpted into something much more palatable during edits and revisions. What are these overused scenes that have gotten such a bad reputation? I found a pretty succinct article about the subject at litreactor.com feel free to click the link and check it out in its entirety.

1. Characters describing themselves in mirrors

Why it’s easy: Describing a character when you’re writing in the third person is pretty easy when the narrative voice is omniscient. But first person is a bit of a challenge—how do you convey what your character looks like without making them sound vain and self-obsessed? Wait, how about using a mirror!?

Why it’s a cop out: It’s lazy, it’s been done to death, and anyway, no one looks in a mirror and takes stock of all their features in severe detail. I would argue you don’t need to belabor the description of your main character anyway. You can hit the big points—if your character’s defining trait is a deformity or a hairstyle—there are ways to work that into the narrative. For the rest of if, you have to trust the reader. First that they don’t need to be coddled, and second, that they’ll project something onto the character.

2. Broadcasting an upcoming plot twist

Why it’s easy: Sometimes you need to give a little weight to a character who’s been sitting around and doing nothing, or make sure the reader is on his or her toes. What’s wrong at a little hint at things to come?

Why it’s a cop out: This is the “little did he know” principle of storytelling. In The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, toward the end of the book, the albino monk is captured by the story’s heroes. And it says—I’m paraphrasing here—something like: “Little did he know that he’d soon turn the tables.” Leading me to ask: Why would you broadcast a plot twist? Especially in a book that’s classified as a thriller?! Dan Brown isn’t the only author to commit this crime. It’s just the first example to come to me.

3. Blaming bad behavior on bad parenting

Why it’s easy: It’s hard to justify bad behavior. If your narrator is a dick, you still want him/her to be a redeemable dick, or at least someone damaged enough that their dickishness isn’t so far-fetched. You know what makes people into dicks that you can’t really question, you just have to accept? Bad parents!

Why it’s a cop out: Almost every fucked-up character in fiction can trace his or her issues back to being sexually abused or slapped around by parental units. Making the parents into monsters is an easy way to explain away bad behavior. It’s too easy. The thing is, sometimes this can be profound or deeply affecting. But a lot of the time, the bad parents are there for the sake of it. You know what’s scarier? Someone growing up in a normal household and still becoming a dick.

4. Too many inside jokes/references

Why it’s easy: Because you need to make sure everyone knows you watched The Big Lebowski.

Why it’s a cop out: Few things stop me as cold in a story as an inside joke or a belabored reference. We get it. You’re funny and you watch cool stuff. But I would need two hands and both feet to count the amount of times I’ve read references to rugs that tied the room together. Writing for your friends, or for your own ego, is a sure way to alienate a reader.

5. The chosen one

Why it’s easy: Your hero isn’t just special. He/she has been chosen by some higher force!

Why it’s a cop out: Characters can be special without being touched by the hand of fate. And anyway, if your character is the only person who can solve a given problem, does that make him/her heroic? Or just easily coerced? They have no choice but to be heroic, and that’s not really heroism. Very rarely is this trope used well. Most of the time… it’s not.

The list continues, and is well worth a read, but these are what I agree to be the biggest offenders.

BUT….. 

Sometimes you just cannot help but use one of these cliches in your story. Sometimes all signs point to one of these things. What are you to do when that happens? Just give up? Call it hopeless? Leave the story to wither and die of lonliness and neglect? No. And I repeat NO. You trudge on through it and com back to it. Maybe, by the time you finish the first draft, you will know something you didn’t know when you wrote it and can tweak it. Or maybe you find you can scrap the scene altogether. The point is, just because you recognize a major cliche in your story does not mean all is worthless, even when there are dozens of “writing experts” that say NO NEVER DO THAT.This is where writer’s instinct kicks in. Take that cliche and make it your bitch. Mold it and sculpt it into something fantastic so that you look at it and go “now that is a dirty, filthy cliche and I love it. Who’s your daddy?”

Ahem… right… moving on.

So, yes, you CAN use cliches, regardless of what the critics say. Just don’t let them be this glaring thing that distracts your readers. You want them to read your story not  worry about how many times they’ve heard this before. Because, I will tell you a little secret; even the most successful authors use them… a lot. The difference is their writing outshines the cliche.

I will wrap this up with a little example from my own writing. I have mentioned before that I am a roleplayer. (For more insight into what that is you can check out my blog post about Online Roleplay) Funny enough, number 7 on the list in the article I quoted above is “Veiling your message in a dream”. Well, today I posted with my foul-mouthed, Irish, spitfire Aisling in a scene where she had been sedated after experiencing her first vision. While unconscious, she had a very telling dream that she will later have to decipher (The cliche-patrol is probably having a ball right now, hehe). Rather than just have a dream where she “sees” her older sister burning down the house with their neglectful parents inside, and spell it all out for her I decided to try and capture the feel of their situation, and place a few context clues throughout. I think that it became more than the cliche it started out to be.

She dreamed of their home. Not the sparkling, shining walls of Hogwarts where her heart dwelled but the dank, chaotic mess of a hovel where her parents raised her, if you could call it raising. It was the building in which she was born, grew up a little, and left, happily, each fall term. That was most accurate. She was standing in front of a wall that she didn’t recognize because it was covered in family pictures. In her real home, there were sparse few photographs and, even more rare, were the ones with the whole O’Rourke clan encased. And never were they given so much thought that they were hung, as if proudly, in a manner such as was before her now.

Her eyes scanned the faces of each image and, rather than cheesing grins staring back at her, the faces of each person were gaunt and lifeless. Eyes were sunken into darkened sockets, cheeks pulled in with ravaging hunger, hair thin and dull. She stared at the pictures of her brothers and sister, her ma and da, and herself and felt…. nothing. Her emotions were well dried up. She thought, for a moment, that she might pity these creatures that pretended to be her and her family but the thought was fleeting as dust blowing in the wind.

In the middle of the wall was a great oval frame, intricately carved. A great ebony snake whittled down to perfect detail; from the deadly gaze to each single scale along its body. She stepped towards the frame that encircled the six of them all together at once. Ma and Da stood int he middle, bony arms wrapped around one another. Rylann stood next to Da, Declan just below her, and Seamus stood beside Ma, Aisling taking the mirror spot of Declan. It was a photography pose often seen in hundreds of pictures of happy families. It was a ruse.

She reached out to the portrait, her fingers hovering just over the sloppy faces of her parents. They looked as if they were simply embracing, like they couldn’t keep their hands off one another, but Aisling knew the truth. They were so pissed that they could barely hold themselves up. They were using each other for balance. Aissy’s fingers met the photo’s slick surface and, the moment her skin touched their faces, a white hot flame erupted between them. It startled her back a bit as the flame grew bigger, engulfing their skeletal forms of both drunken parents until they turned black and began to shrink inward. As the fire grew, the cheeks of the children began to fill out, their eyes sparkled, and a healthy glow enveloped all but the eldest, Rylann. Instead of a halo of light around her, a dark aura hung about her shoulders, yet she still smiled on.

She stared curiously, wondering what this could mean, but felt nothing. She was numb. Glancing over the rest of the pictures, she found black smudges where her parents had once been. Again, her sister plagued by the darkness.

She awoke to Declan’s raging mouth. Her eyes fluttered half-heartedly before staying open and taking in the view her current position afforded her. She saw none of her siblings, or Clover, or Jackson, but she did see the lower half of a man she did not yet recognize. And a blue light swirling about. When the man left, Aissy turned her head and took in those that were still there. “Wot ‘appened?” she said hoarsely, her throat burning dry.

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3 comments on “Clichés: All things in moderation.

  1. Maybe I’m just a rebel, but I’ve never liked rules, LOL while it’s true that we shouldn’t use a lot of cliches, like you say, sometimes they just seem necessary, because they are cliches because they reflect real life! I was a psychologist professionally, and the reality is, while a few criminals or mean people (true clinical description) have a missing electrical current, or mutated dna that causes them to go awry, most bad behavior seems to have come from a bad environment or bad parenting or bad dna.. So 2/3 of the time it is the parents fault, its hard to escape. Personally, I hate to always blame the parents, but in reality…well, that is not the real point here is it, LOL Its about writing. I will read the article, and I appreciate your sharing it, but I don’t know why, it bothers me to think of all of a life scenario as a cliche, because it could just be life, and how sad to think your life is a cliche! Well, your writing made me think, good job. Helen

  2. I like your examples and that you acknowledge that sometimes a cliche works. Some characters (real and imaginary) include cliches in their everyday conversations. As a writer, this can be use to define character, but the writer certainly wouldn’t want several characters talking that way.

  3. I really enjoyed this post – it made me think, you demonstrated your point really clearly. Thank you. I shall enjoy my planned re-visits.

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