Clichés…a writer’s dirty little secret

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at this controversial topic and the power it has over writers. Cliché, not a term to be used lightly, literally means a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty (thank you wiki). It can come in the guise of a characterization, plot device, description, setting, idea or a million other things.

Some scoff at clichés, damning them alongside trans-fats, celebrity authors and Hitler. A cliché? Not in MY work, no way. Others discuss them in low, embarrassed tones. If forced to point one out to a fellow writer, it’s done with carefully averted eyes and a grimace, like the other person has just soiled themselves. “I think this might be a little…cliché.”

Why does this one word cause such discomfort? Because a cliché is an insult, a slur. A blight on a manuscript. And, a writer’s dirtiest little secret.

A secret—this loathsome term? Impossible! And yet it isn’t, because as much as we hate clichés and disparage their presence, we use them all the time in our writing.

Clarisse, can you hear the lambs screaming?

Okay, let me explain. It is said that are no unique ideas, no fresh thoughts, no new ways of saying or doing anything that has not been said or done before. Take a look at books like The Hero with a Thousand Faces or The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers and you’ll see what I mean, or simply think portals to other worlds, chosen ones, a magic fill-in-the-blank (swords, amulets, etc), hearts racing, a river of tears, a dying man’s declaration. Face it…clichés are everywhere.

Personally, I believe there are fresh ideas, characters and descriptions out there, hidden in the crags and crevices of our imaginations. Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability or the time to mine them into being. Oftentimes we believe we have something new, only to discover it has been done before.

Whether you believe ‘nothing is new’ or not, I hope we can agree that all writers use clichés at some point. Some are successful at it (Star Wars, anyone?) and some…not so much. The trick is to pick and choose when and where to use them and to always adapt them so they stand in a fresh light.

Over the next few posts, I want to take a look at a few of the worst offenders: evil villains, trite metaphors, sappy emotional expressions, plots we see too often, character stereotypes (the handsome rich jocks, Ugly Betty type nerds, the blonde & beautiful mean girls). Let’s drag this topic into the light and discuss how to freshen the tired (and sometime outright annoying) cliché.

Do you have a pet peeve cliché? Are you having trouble with keeping one out of your story? If so, mention it in the comment section and we’ll take a look at it together!

13 comments:

Bish Denham said...

I don't know if it's a cliche so much as, to me, an over-used word. The word is "arguably," as in, "Arguably cliches are over-used." When I read the word as it's used in that context, it is usally written to imply that something is the best; it's SO good, it's SO obvious, it's past the point of being argued about. So wouldn't it be, "UNarguably cliches are over-used?"

Help, get me out of this cliche! It is, arguably the worst and possibly the most misused word around.

Just_Me said...

A running theory I heard when I was young and still paying attention to other people was that there are only 20 themes in the world. Twenty total plots possible.

Star Wars wasn't new, it was the Odyssey redone with blasters.

Every epic is a retelling of Hercules.

Indiana Jones is just some Greek tragedy in a fedora.

Cliches happen, and you don't notice until the author gets it wrong. The Chosen One Syndrome doesn't hit unless the Chosen Pig Farmer in question is so poorly written that no one can sympathize with him/her/it. Write well and no one will notice you're infiringing on an ancient Egyptian copyright.

courtney said...

Ooh! I am excited about the upcoming posts. I get annoyed with character cliches a lot. The damsel in distress, the hero with the jerk suit, etc.

Mary Witzl said...

I agree with Just Me: good writing tends to cover a multitude of sins. And I think even tired old cliches can be used in a fresh way -- changed a little or abbreviated, perhaps, or used in a tongue-in- cheek fashion. Just because they're cliches doesn't mean they aren't also pearls of wisdom. (See? I did it right there!) It is when they are thrown in right, left and center (did it again!) that they become tiresome.

I myself get tired of gratuitous buzz words of all types. I'm fed up hearing that someone described as amazing just because that person does his/her job well. Does she walk on water? Can he turn slut's wool into spun gold? That's is amazing; being an uber-agent, say, or a damned good editor, is just commendable. (Once I'm dealing with these people myself, perhaps I'll describe them as amazing...) 'Cool' and 'totally' drive me rather wild too, but then I have teenagers.

Susan Sandmore said...

It's not the cliches in plot that bother me so much. Like you say, stories are redone and those based in mythology are naturally going to have common elements. It's the cliches in writing that make me yawn. I'm sure I'm guilty, too, mind you. But I just read this book where the author used cliche after cliche. A "soft breeze" through the window made the "curtains billow" and "wispy tendrils" of the main character's hair blah blah blah. I mean, curtains billow. There's no doubt about it. It's what curtains sometimes do. But I don't read to experience every common phraseology and million-years-old image sprinkled together to form a plot. You may have nothing new to say, but find a new way to say it!

Angela said...

Bish--

according to my handy-dandy dictionary, 'arguably' means 'as supported by arguement.' So it doesn't necessarily mean the best or the worse of something, its stating that rather than a blanket statement, there are some facts that can back up the statement to prove it as a strong possibility.

I do think that it's 'stiff' usage can create the feeling of it being 'so obviously correct' in regards to the statement that it is modifying. It's a dangerous word because of it, because you see 'arguably' and immediately form an opinion about the statement its relating to as 'being the right choice'. I could say something like, "Arguably, dogs make the best pets." and there's truth to it, because I'm sure there are millions of dog owners who believe poochie is the best pet. But if I also asked for feedback from cat owners, why I bet their answer would be different, disproving the arguably statement, wouldn't it?

I think we can say that arguably, the word arguably is like statistics...you can use it or misuse it to imply whatever you want.

Angela said...

Cliches happen, and you don't notice until the author gets it wrong.

I think this is exactly correct. The trick is to get it right...right? :-)

Angela said...

myself get tired of gratuitous buzz words of all types.

I think the issue with the buzz words like 'amazing' is that they lose their flavour. As you say, we use them at the drop of a hat (har har) that the cease to mean what they're supposed to. The word itself becomes bland, and we need a better way to convey how 'amazing' something is when something truly magnificent does come along, because 'amazing' doesn't cut it any more.

My buzz word beefs are the 'for shizzle' types. I mean, ones like this I can't even say with a straight face when their popular, much less when they quickly hit their expiration date.

I just read this book where the author used cliche after cliche. A "soft breeze" through the window made the "curtains billow" and "wispy tendrils" of the main character's hair blah blah blah.

Susan, this is an interesting point. Some 'language choice' cliches grate simply because they are used together. Sure, curtains billow, and sometimes the simplest way to say something is best. But when you layer description after cliched description, it's like a cake with waaaay too much frosting.

Thanks everyone for your comments. I'm really looking forward to posting more on cliches!

colbymarshall said...

"The trick is to pick and choose when and where to use them"

I agree with this one hundred percent. I don't think cliche's are the horrid monsters writers often make them out to be. They can be used...sparingly.

Donna said...

You can never have too much frosting on a cake. Ever. Got it? In fact, screw the cake. Just give me the can and a spoon.

I wanted to add that I think it would be beneficial to discuss the differences between tropes and cliches. There are just four tropes in writing--man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself (aka naval gazing) and man versus god. Every single book can be broken down to fit one of those four tropes. It's inescapable but it's not cliche.

Personally, I think cliche got a bad rap. They're really not bad. cliches are cliches for a reason, because people actually do like to read them. A farm boy seeking a powerful amulet can be interesting but lazy writing can make it fall into the bane of the cliche precipe. Take a look over at Toasted Scimitar and see how they feel about pre-destined farm boys and evil minions. And I think many people would feel the same way, but it's all in the writing.

Use cliches to your advantage but don't use them as a crutch. Personall, I'm of the notion that there aren't any new ideas, just unique ones. So you have an amulet in your story. That's not a bad thing but you're going to have to work your little butt off to dredge it from the cliche sludge that it's defaulted in.

It's all in the effort. How many prices in hiding farm boys do we have in fantasy? But how many had a limb torn off in a farming accident before the revelation? It's about utilizing the brain you have in your skull to add spice to the bland meat and potatoes on your plate. You have to be willing to think and act for yourself if you want to use cliches because if they start dressing like all the other kids at school, no one's going to bother.

Marian said...

Sometimes it's fun to flip the cliche on its head. For instance, if the story begins with the farmboy and the wise old mentor setting off on a journey, what if the forces of evil killed the farmboy? The old mentor would then have to take up the quest instead. I'd read that. :)

parakeva said...

I know I'm really really late to comment, but I'm confused by the Silence of the Lambs reference. Do you mean that's a cliche?

Thank you!

Angela said...

No, not a cliche in this sense, I meant it more that many writers view cliches as being cringe-worthy, that the very idea that we might have used one in our work sends chills pinging up the spine.

Hannibal's line to evoke a bad memory for Clarisse makes her cringe, just like thinking about cliches in our writing does for us!

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