Wednesday, May 28, 2014

If it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

It was a dark and stormy night.

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in the blink of an eye?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch the movie THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these clichéd themes keep working. Try to avoid them at all costs.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix like the one in the previous sentence. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast in order to get the story onto the page, and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up.

My first tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where you can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean you should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for lazy writing.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character's action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?

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28 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great advice, Joe.

    What about cliches that occur in narration by close third POV? Is the cliche acceptable if it fits the voice of the POV narrator?

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  2. Yes, Steve. As I mentioned, dialog is about the only place you might be able to get away with cliches. This also goes for the POV narration or inner thoughts tied to the character's dialog. Like I also mentioned, make sure it fits the nature of the character. If you've set a precedence that the character tends to rely on cliches as part of his or her makeup, it might work. I would also consider the opposite: the character seems to come up with original ways of expressing things that help build a strong, unique persona.

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    1. Another way to cash in on cliches is to have a character that's always messing the up. It's raining cats and ducks. It hit me like a pound of bricks. Blind as a baboon.

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    2. I want to use these now Joe - especially blind as a baboon:)

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  3. Great post, Joe. I do like clichés in dialogue, though, especially for rural or older people - both my dad and mom used them a lot - as they help to immediately characterize that type of person, the kind who would say "She was running around like a chicken with its head cut off" or "It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack." etc. Groaners, but great for instantly characterizing quirky minor characters, especially rural or small-town ones.

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    1. That is a good example of where you can get away with it.

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  4. Good post, Joe. I just rooted a cliche out of the plot for my new Dead-End Job mystery -- a ditzy New Age woman. Decided I wasn't sure what New Age really meant and the writing world had enough scatter-brained women.

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  5. You hit the nail on the head. You knocked it out of the park. You're as right as rain...

    Seriously, good advice. We all fall into our cliche ruts. And as you point out, it goes beyond word choice. My pet peeve is lazy characterization both in going for the easy cliches AND giving characters overly quirky traits as a way of making the character SEEM fresh. (ie the bi-sexual PI who plays banjo in a Zydeco band and has a pet alligator named Elvis. (oh wait, that last one was Sonny Crocket in the early Miami Vice episodes.

    Am guilty of this laziness myself. We wrote a chapter recently in which we had a computer whiz helping Louis out and -- DUH! -- of course he was Asian. We changed it.

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    1. That's why you're the apple of my eye, Kris.

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  6. Just finished my revised draft. Now I have to go back and look root out cliches? Thanks a lot JOE.

    Seriously, this is a great post. Writing is so much easier with great writers reminding me of potential problems.

    Thanks for real.

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    1. Sorry. And you're welcome, Brian. :-)

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  7. And I just bought The Shield - looking forward to reading the final version! :-)

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    1. Enjoy, Jodie. And thanks for great editing job.

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    2. My pleasure, Joe! I really enjoyed working on The Shield! :-)

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  8. Sitcoms seem to be the ultimate resting place for cliches--used for delivering punch lines to the rhythm of a laugh track.

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  9. Even if you've only got a week to write a script, you should still be as fresh as the driven snow.

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  10. Some cliches (can't do accents) are regional, and they might work to reinforce a character's birthplace, etc. You see this in SCANDAL, the US Senator (I think he's a senator) who's a bad guy. And being regional, they often seem fresh to those who didn't grow up where the character grew up.

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  11. Great reminder, Joe. I just finished a novella set in a fictitious small Texas town with older folks. Like Jodie said, the cliches ran rampant in my head as I heard their voices, but I retooled the old phrases using sarcasm to do it. It's fun to find a different colorful way to word a familiar cliche, like instead of using "center of the universe," try "they were the Grand Poobah of the cosmos."

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  12. I run my manuscript through the Smart Edit program and it points out cliches. That's helpful because sometimes you don't realize you're using one.

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    1. Btw, the url for Smart Edit is
      http://www.smart-edit.com

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    2. Now if there was just a Smart Write program I could use. I'd pay double.

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    3. Nancy, does this include all the cliches Joe mentioned, or just language cliches?

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  13. Cliché is French for 'redundant' 'redundant' 'redundant'

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    1. Basil, that's from the department of redundancy department.

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