Common writing wisdom tells us to avoid clichés, but those lines still slip into our writing. Often, it's the sneaky ones that seem normal--just a phrase that sounds right for that particular situation. We can't say why, we just feel that that character would say that line at that moment.
A line like this:
This video has got to be 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.
But look at little deeper.
The line itself got 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.
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.
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.
It's usually 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 X...like the plague."
- Are there any common metaphors or similes?
- Are there any scenes that felt like the easiest way to handle something?
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 ClicheSite.com.
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)
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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