Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What's So Wrong With Clichés in Our Fiction? This.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Clichés seem like harmless phrases, but they can damage our writing if we're not careful.

Common writing wisdom tells us to avoid clichés, but those lines still slip into our writing. Often, it's the sneaky phrases that sound right for that particular situation. We can't say why it does, we just feel that a character would say or think a line at that moment.

A line such as "Is that what I think it is?"

This video is probably the best example of why the "avoid clichés" advice exists.  

It's only a minute and a half, but it doesn't take long before you're cringing at each and every "Is that what I think it is?" line. It sounds normal the first few times, then a little cheesy, then flat out funny, and by then end it's just sad and a bit painful.

But look at little deeper.

The line itself grew less and less interesting, but so did the characters saying it. Even amazing actors in great roles felt cheesy and flat while saying that line, because the line carried no emotional weight. It's a generic line.

(Here's more on upcycling your clichés into something fresh)

Is it funny? Yes. Does it work in some cases? Yes. Does it tell you anything about the character saying it? No.

Because it's a line we've heard dozens of characters say in dozens of different circumstances, all with the same basic meaning behind it--I just saw something that surprised me.

Which is ironic, since the situation with a surprise is using a line that carries no inherent surprise anymore.

Since so many characters have said it, it loses its characterization value (unless the whole point of that character is to use cliché or quote movie lines). A line anyone anywhere could say is probably not the best line for a character you want to feel well developed and unique.

(Here's more on avoiding character clichés and stereotypes)

It's easy for lines like this to find their way into our work, though. Odds are we heard them in a movie or even read them in a book and they stuck with us, because they were indeed fantastic lines (and we hear them so often they just sound right).

When we write them, we bring that same emotional connection with us and apply it to the scene in our novel. It's sounds cool because someone cool said it somewhere and that's in our head. They can even feel like "smart writing" because they feel polished and "professional"--because we see them in a book or heard them in a movie.

They're also so ingrained in our subconscious that they naturally roll off our fingertips into the keyboard. We reach a moment where we want our character to say something witty or funny, and the cliché fits that requirement. 

But when it's a cliché as common as "is that what I think it is?", it's better to cut it and look for a line that's original to your character.

Finding Clichés in Your Own Work

One problem with clichés is that we don't always realize something is a cliché. This is one reason why people advise you to read widely in your genre, so you can identify and spot the common clichés used in that genre. If you have a line or scene you're not sure about, ask yourself:
  • Are there any lines that feel "right" for that character or situation, yet also familiar?
  • Are there any "common sayings" you know you've heard before?
  • Are there any lines where you wrote the first half, then felt compelled to finish it with a specific phrase? Such as "I avoid the plague."
  • Are there any common metaphors or similes?
  • Are there any scenes that felt like the easiest way to handle something?
Clichés often find their way into first drafts as we're looking for shortcuts to keep the story moving. Don't worry too much about them in the drafting stage if you want to keep your writing momentum, but it's useful to check for clichés during revisions.

(Here's more on why we love some cliché more than others)

If you're not sure if something is a cliché or not, try looking at TV tropes (a fantastic site for tropes and clichés in books, movies, TV, and other entertainment genre) and

And if you really want to use that cliché? You can make one work for you with a little effort and creativity it will make your novel better.

What clichés make you laugh or cringe? Are there lines or situations that you wish you'd never see again? (For me, that would be girls tripping and falling when they're being chased by something) 

*Originally published January 2014. Last update March 2018.

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. It's like a full time job in itself trying to avoid cliches! I'm currently in the process of writing a novel that deals with jealousy, cheating, unrequited love, crime, blame, survivors guilt, the works really but certainly nothing that hasn't been done numerous times before (I do have a major twist the readers figure out towards the end but of course I will need them to stick with me until then). I feel backstory is one of the only areas I can use to make the "common" situations unique. How else can I make sure my plot stands out? Character motivation? Reactions or lack there of? How the characters cope? Or maybe internalization is enough? (the novel is in the first person). There's just such a fine line, because certain genres have conventions readers expect too. And sometimes I feel that the characters are more relatable if their motivations, reactions, etc are somewhat generic? Thank you so much for your time and advice. I just stumbled across your blog last night and am already learning so much xx

    1. The TV Tropes website explains, with many, many examples, that tropes - the things we expect to find in our fiction - are good and useful unless they are either shoehorned into a story where they don't fit, discredited because they are now considered inappropriate or offensive, or overused, i.e. cliche. The dividing line can be very subjective.

      For common situations it can be very useful to distinguish between the function, which is generic, and the form, which can be unique.

      E.g. in espionage or police procedural stories you will always have briefings, investigations, arrests, interrogations, experts explaining their research results, etc. You will find all those in John Le Carre's Smiley novels, but they are described very differently from most other stories in that genre. Same with TV shows, like NCIS: You could indentify the show by the style and the feeling if some unknown actors using different names and places would re-enact a couple of scenes that you have not yet seen for real.

      Something similar is true for romantic plots or subplots: You need certain elements, but they can very greatly in form.

      One example I like very much is the Brangelina movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". It's a romatic comedy dressed up as an action movie, and it works astonishingly well. The typical required romantic scenes that show "how both are meant for each other" and "how many differences they will have to overcome to get together (again)" in that movie have the form of action movie scenes, their relationship talks are discussions about killing people and getting away with it.

      Another great example for a very unsual romantic subplot is "The Big Bang Theory"'s description of the "relationship" between Sheldon (who hates the very idea of intimicy) and Amy (who desparately wants intimicy but is socially awkward).

      Don't get me wrong: These examples are not what one would "normally" use in romance. But they show how much variation is possible.

      Romance is always about what pulls people together and what pulls them apart, but the details of both aspects can vary extremely.

      Crime is always about someone stepping over moral boundaries because that someone wants something so much, but you can find unique reasons for that "greed".

    2. That's a great point, and there is a big difference between a cliche and a trope. Readers would have a fit if a certain trope was missing from their stories, and it's good to know what those tropes are.

      I think a need an article on tropes now!

  2. OMG that video cracked me up! I was definitely cringing by the end. I'm bookmarking Never heard of it. Now I'd better check to make sure "Is that what I think it is?" isn't in my books. Thanks, Janice.

    1. It had me laughing, too. I don't think I'll ever hear it without laughing again.

  3. That video was superb - what a cringe-worthy reminder of what makes a cliche a cliche! I´ll have to take a hard look at my WIP.

    I wish the perky blonde cheerleader cliche would die. Ditto the smart-girl-who-doesn´t-know-she's-pretty-until-someone-takes-off-her-glasses cliche. The aloof and mysterious sexy brooding teenage male. Okay, I think I´d better stop there. :)

    1. I'm with you on those, especially the glasses thing. I blame Clark Kent!

  4. Margie Lawson is the writing guru who pointed out how bad cliches are. Even when I thought I avoided them--there they were. I agree with you to give ourselves permission in a first draft, but in subsequent drafts, it really takes time to weed them out.

    1. Especially the more subtle ones that feel so right.

  5. Funny! I love the TV tropes site. I'll have to check out the cliché site.

    1. TV tropes is awesome. I spent way too much time there the first time I found it.

  6. That was torture but lesson learned...if that's what you thought it was.

    1. It was totally what you thought it was.

  7. TV Tropes is a vital writer's tool. I love it.

    It also makes the distinction between a trope and a cliche, which is important. Just because something is common, or has been seen before, doesn't automatically make it cliche.

    1. Absolutely. Big difference between trope and cliche, and I'll be doing a post on that before long.

  8. The scientist who tries to give a lecture on some off-the-wall theory, but hardly anyone shows up to listen and they walk out in the middle of the lecture... then two minutes later, his theory proves to be completely true. I loved that scene when I saw it in `Honey I Shrunk the Kids,' got a kind of deja vu feeling when it showed up in `Stargate' (the movie), and just rolled my eyes when it appeared in `Atlantis.'

    1. I'm not sure you can have a sci fi movie without that, can you? (grin). Maybe that only applies to cheesy sci fi movies.

  9. One of my CPs is the Cliche Warden. I send her all my stuff for a final check and she always catches something...

    1. Nice! Everyone could use a Cliche Warden. I love that title.