Thursday, October 20, 2011

INSIDE TOP SUSPENSE: Clichés -- Love 'em or Leave 'em?

Today INSIDE TOP SUSPENSE talks about clichés. Are they okay sometimes? For example, in dialogue? Or are they the result of lazy writing? Can you live with one or two, or should you root them out? Here’s what we think.

LIBBY: When I began writing my prose was full of clichés. I actually sought them out. I mean, clichés are ideas that everyone understands and can relate to, right? We live in a world of them, particularly on TV and radio. So why not incorporate them into my writing so that readers will really “get” what I’m trying to say?

It took my writing group months to pound it into my head that wasn’t the case. Since then, in fact, I've learned clichés have the opposite effect. But it’s subtle. Instead of bringing the reader closer to an understanding of a situation or character, clichés – because they’re so widely used – tend to deaden emotion and distance us from what we’re reading. Clichés also reinforce stereotypes and stereotypical behavior. How many times can someone be “over the top” or “red as a beet” before we yawn and lose interest?

Now I try to root them out in every paragraph. But it’s tough… even after 15 years, those little buggers still pop up.

MAX: Cliches can be a conundrum, because whether a phrase or a plot turn, every cliche bears an element of truth at its core...repetition of a seeming truth is the diamond that becomes coal, over time.

In terms of phrases, clichés should be rooted out because of their over-use and the laziness they imply on the part of the writer. A trickier question is whether to root them out of dialogue, or even a first-person narrative, since the character you're writing about might quite naturally use a cliché in speech or, for that matter, when writing a memoir...after all, our first-person characters aren't often intended to be professional writers, simply somebody with a story to tell. Sometimes avoiding the cliché in dialogue or first-person narrative screws up the tone and/or betrays the characterization. It's tricky.

A clichéd scene often grows out of the conventions of genre storytelling. Conventions, unlike clichés, are often unavoidable. In crime fiction, particularly the traditional variety I prefer, conventions are part of the fabric and even of the fun. The rogue cop is going to get called into his superior's office for a bawling out. A private eye is going to have a client walk into his office, and that client may be a beautiful woman...or the female P.I. may have a handsome male client walk into her office. The latter is at least an attempt to turn the convention on its head, and that's how you avoid a clichéd treatment of a scene that is inherently conventional. In other words, treat the conventional scene in at least a somewhat unconventional way. In some cases, it's as easy as providing an interesting location. Maybe the P.I. meets the prospective client, at that client's request, in some unusual location -- even a bar or the client's home is better than the office approach. Maybe the rogue cop gets bawled out by his superior on an answer machine, and the cop says, "Blah blah blah," and fast-forwards/erases it. Again, could be a change of location -- the police shooting range, maybe, or the break room where the superior sits down and seems to be having a little friendly breaking of the bread before he hands the rogue cop his ass or his badge.

You can always try acknowledging the cliché. In one of my stories (I don't remember which), I wrote something to the effect of, "Sooner or later, when you're a private eye, a beautiful client is going to walk into your office and there's nothing you can do about it." On the other hand, my mentor at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, the great mainstream writer Richard Yates, pointed out to that when I wrote "he broke the bottle off on the counter of the bar like a tough guy in a B movie," that didn't make it any less like a B movie. Too much self-awareness can make a writer too cute, and frankly that's at least as bad as being clichéd.

DAVE: In Jim Thompson's classic noir novel, The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford uses clichés to strike at people and to make them squirm and fidget. 'It's not the heat, it's humidity.' 'Another thing about the weather. Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything.' 'Every cloud has a silver lining.' And so on and so on, until the poor hapless sap he's needling is dying to get away from him. That's the thing with clichés--whether it's in our plots, characters, or writing, they're annoying as hell. So as writers how do we avoid them? Vigilance. It's so easy to naturally fall into clichéd writing if you're not looking for it, and the only way to keep them out of our writing is to be always looking for them, especially when you're proofing your work.

BILL: Clichés are a dime a dozen, and a try to avoid them like the plague. When I was asked how to do that, I knew I had to think of something good. So I put my shoulder to the wheel, my nose to the grindstone, and my ear to the ground. (There are times when that semester I spent in contortionist school really comes in handy.) Here’s what I came up with.

If you’re going to avoid clichés, you have to know what they are. That requires reading books and watching movies. After a while, you learn that it’s really nothing new to have the villain tie up the protagonist and say, “I am going to set this bomb to explode in one hour, and then I’ll be leaving you. First, however, I’m going to explain to you in detail my entire fiendish scheme.”

While you’re watching movies, you’ll learn that some clichés are purely visual and won’t work too well when you’re writing a book. For example, it’s not nearly as exciting to write about how your protagonist avoided being killed by the explosion of a ten megaton bomb by running really fast and jumping really high at just the right moment. Looks cool on film, though.

Some clichés are just too good to give up. Like the psycho sidekick in the private-eye novel. Did Robert B. Parker create that one with Hawk? Plenty of people since then have given their detectives psycho sidekicks, and with great success. You probably know who I’m talking about.

By now you know what I’m talking about. You probably did from the very first. If something comes up again and again in the books you read and the movies you watch, you don’t want to do that thing. You want something new and fresh and different. And if you can’t think of anything, just do what I do. I explain that I don’t use clichés, that I’m merely sticking with the “respected conventions of the genre” or “presenting a respectful homage to some of the finest writers in the field.” It works like a charm.

Your turn now. What do you think about clichés?


  1. This one shows up mostly in screenwriting, but one of the plot cliches that always makes me squirm is the one where the hero's fought the good fight but one final bad turn has put him at the villain's mercy, and the villain's about to finish him off... then a shot rings out and the villain falls, revealing a nervous supporting character holding the hero's gun. It's usually the female lead. And she's usually in a state of shock so the hero then comforts her, showing us that he's still the the top dog in their relationship.

    Fought the good fight, a shot ringing out, top dog... sometimes written cliches are avoidable, but offer a handy shortcut to what you need to say when the uniqueness of how you say it isn't an issue.

    And speaking of dogs... someone recently pointed out that a dog barking in the distance featured in almost every recent novel he'd read, signifying a sense of lonely isolation at an appropriate point in the story. Curious, I ran searches on some of my manuscript files.

    I'm far too embarrassed to tell you the outcome.

  2. I agree with Bill. Reading made me more aware of cliches. I encounter some developing writers who don't read that much, so those cliches seem more vibrant and visceral to them than they really are.

    It's all about finding those unique concrete details that makes your characters come to life.

    In terms of cliched structure/form, that's a harder one for me. I think that I'm attracted to genre because there is an inherent form and expectation to it. That's when voice and character help to change things up. I'm currently attempting to read (attempting being the operative word!) more experimental literary works like David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST. Figure that I have to keep challenging my notions of how to construct a narrative.

    And the beautiful girl who causes men to do crazy things -- that's my pet peeve. Of course, all of us are beautiful in our own way :-) but to tell you the truth, I don't encounter that many women and men who fall into this category -- and the ones who do don't seem that fascinating. I do see regular-looking people who get in all sorts of trouble and it's more interesting to me to see an author take on this type of character.

  3. Morris the Explainer. That point in a complex story when the good guy is about to lose, and someone--usually the antagonist--goes on and on and on tying up loose plot points for the reader. It's very difficult to avoid that moment, and even tougher to find an original way to handle it when it lumbers onto the stage, drooling cliche. As Max said, there is always an element of truth in the cliche, so the real trick is finding some kind of original spin on it. I love it when I close a book satisfied, and only gradually realize how the magic trick was accomplished.

  4. I want to take the idea of cliche back to the level of words and Creative Writing 101 for a minute. When you use a familiar phrase, it's a type of cliche that has been dubbed a "word package." Word packages are lazy or careless repetitions of phrases you've read before, for example: shots rang out or she howled with laughter. Any time you don't have to work to create a sentence, you should check to see if you've plugged in a word package. Unfortunately, these run rampant (another word package)so if you're not careful you can easily fall into the trap. (Ack, another one!)

  5. In the big picture, the 'Genre' in genre fiction wouldn't exist without cliches. From Carroll John Daly's Race Williams to Lee Child's Jack Reacher the hero is a loner, often an ex-soldier, but with a distain for authority. he has his own code of ethics the plot devices - dead ends and red herrings.

    Noir would hardly exist without flawed characters; characters void of redeemable qualities.

    Even when the author turns the cliches on its ear it becomes an anti-cliche and in time a cliche of it's own.

    But when it comes to the narrower focus, dialogue, narration, familiar plot devices, even the relationship of the main character with other charasters, as a reader I lose interest when cliches are employed. How many heros do we need rescuing damsels in distress? Unless these things can be written with new and exciting twists it is better to avoid them.