Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cliches: You Can't Swing a Dead Cat Without Hitting a Dead Doornail

Writer's Digest website had a fun little article on the top 12 cliches to avoid like the plague (ha! sorry) and invited readers to contribute their own.  Yes, most of these turns of phrases have been overused to the point of complete staleness (though some contributions I had never heard of...making me wonder if some folks were stretching a little too hard to contribute an "original cliche" which may be my new favorite contradictory phrase).

Still, they're not the worst cliches in writing, in my view.

These are just sloppy description, placeholder ideas.  They're easily seen and easily edited out.  You might stumble across one while revising on your own, or a crit partner will point it out to you.  You'll see right away how it made the paragraph in which you unwisely included it as bland as beige.

The worst cliches are the storytelling cliches.  Everyone has their pet peeve cliche or two, but cliched storytelling is when the characters feel "done" or when the plot is populated only by familiar tropes and nothing original is added to turn the trope from "done" to "new."  In my view, tropes aren't the problem, as there are a million iterations of most tropes. "Star-crossed lovers" is a trope.  Romeo and Juliet was still original (well, kind of...but it was well-done enough to trump any "been there" feeling).  Reiterations and reimaginings aren't the problem, either--after all, West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet redux, but it still works, because it's such a fresh take.

No, cliches are when the story hasn't been freshness sealed.  Avoid cliches.  Ziplock your stories.

A few of my pet peeve storytelling cliches:

1) The beautiful heroine who doesn't realize she's beautiful.  Let's be honest.  Most of us are pretty self-aware as to what our attractiveness is, comparatively speaking.  If you have a character experiencing an ugly duckling to swan transformation, there needs to be more than, say, a boy making her realize she's pretty.  (I have other issues with this...) Cliches take away real character development.

2) When the mystery is solved or action is dictated by a dream.  This may be just me, but I haven't stumbled across a good version of this in quite some time.  It feels lazy.  Plus, when the character starts dreaming, you *know* this is where it's going.  Cliches take away the surprise from the reading.

3) Chosen by Fate or what have you.  I have no problem with a character being the best one for the job, or being uniquely qualified for something.  That can drive a great plot.  But when the reasoning is "you've been CHOSEN!" and the immediate reaction (which takes about 3/4 of the book to overcome) is "but I am not WORTHY! You have the wrong person!" it tends to step easily into cliche land, especially if this is the driving device in the plot.  Cliches take away the potential for something new.

Now, just because I listed something here doesn't mean any story that utilizes one of these themes is automatically cliche.  There is still possibility to take a stale concept and freshen it up.  The key is the unexpected and the new--it can turn a dead doornail into a live, swinging, yowling cat.  (But please don't.  I like cats.)

Do you have any pet peeve storytelling cliches?  Any that you've culled from your own work?


  1. Yeah, I'm kind of over the whole "child of prophecy" thing, too. Rowling, at least, made it interesting, but most people don't.

  2. Yeah, the whole "beautiful but don't realize it" thing is getting really old. As is the "prophesy child." But I'd love to see the whole "chosen" cliche turned on its head--I think there's room to explore it and twist it into something new and different.

  3. Yes to both--the "chosen" cliche can work, like it did in Harry Potter--but Rowling also didn't dwell on it. And I'd love to see more stories where it's an element that's played with! (I'd actually love to read a story about someone who's *not* special and has to deal with that!)