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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Cliché: Unloved and Underappreciated

Courtesy of Yello-Dog
Clichés are next to adverbs and to be verbs when it comes to warning new writers of the pitfalls awaiting them in this new world of words.

There's emotion clichés--hearts pounding anyone? There are also plot clichés (or tropes)--the orphaned Chosen One ring a bell? There are websites you can go to that detail clichés in literature, especially in fantasy. And there are a lot of them.

So why do clichés get no love?

Looking at it a different way, a cliché became a cliché because it worked. It was brilliant and successful at conveying the exact emotion to the reader with an economy of words. Tropes are similar to clichés in that they also worked at showing the reader exactly what kind of story they were reading so they knew what to expect. And then you have archetypes that are on the other end of the spectrum, but just as predictable. Sometimes it can be helpful to see these as a gradation rather than separate things:

cliché--> trope --> archetype 

And yet many times we writers are warned away from using these tools, except maybe the archetypes. Some even go so far as to twist their story into a manifold of knots so they can avoid falling into the cliché/trope traps. As writers, we want to be original. Go boldly where no writer has gone before. But when you strip a story down to its bare bones, it's easy to see that there are really very few stories and really no new ones since a few millennia ago.

So trying to come up with a completely knew story is kind of crazy. Clichés and tropes aren't the enemy. They can be used to help teach the craft, because one of the best ways a writer can hone their craft is to study the masters.

It's definitely possible to work within conventions while still bringing something new and fresh to the table. I write fairy tale-type fantasy, and those clichés and tropes can come in handy because they resonate with the reader. Fairy tale retellings are very popular, and yet so many of them follow the same tropes whether they be royal child that is cursed and requires some sort of intervention to break the spell so as to claim their happily ever after or a common, yet worthy person who must do the impossible to lift the spell, battle the dragon, and win true love.

And yet, even with using so many of the same tropes, there is a wide variety of stories that are different from each other--even within the same fairy tale.

The key is in using the cliché, the tropes, to resonate with the reader while twisting it here or there to give the tale your own unique spin. The twists are one of my favorite things in fairy tale retellings, but it's difficult to move beyond the cliché if you don't understand why it works in the first place.

So what can be gained by owning the cliché?
  • Stories that aren't painfully contorted in an attempt to evade falling into anything even faintly resembling the familiar.
  • Connecting to the reader much faster, because in general, readers connect to the characters--people they're familiar with and who they see a bit of themselves inside.
  • Better able to find a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. Being able to use that to bring something new and unique to the story.
  • Readers should be able to know who they ought to be cheering for.
To be clear, I'm not advocating lazy writing. And in my mind, the cliché or trope is the starting place, not an end unto itself. It's the familiar, and as that is established and woven throughout the story, the new things and the way you twist the cliché are what will delight and engage the reader, drawing them even further into your story.

Because at the end of the day, that's the story's job. A story isn't real until the reader breathes life into it.

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here. 


Shakespeare said...

Cliches exist because someone copied a pattern instead of doing something new with it.

Since "there is nothing new under the sun," the key is, as you said, doing something NEW with the pattern, and making sure that the pattern, in its new form, resonates meaningfully with readers. A cliche they will look over, for it will generate nothing new. A new take on it will work wonders.

Interesting post!

Barbara Watson said...

The familiar woven with the new - I like that, especially since I write for kids.

Your closing sentence is exactly how I feel about books.

Ash Krafton said...

Cliches are the bane of my existence.


G said...

Cliches used to be the bane of my writing. But as I've slowly gotten better, they appeared on a less frequent basis for my writing.

I still use them from time to time, but I do make an concentrated effort to 1) put a new twist on them and 2) save them for my blog, where cliches can happily co-exist with dopey writing.

Bethany C. said...

LOVE THIS! An agent recently told me she liked my story but doubted she could sell it because it's predictable. I don't buy that. The concept may be familiar, but the characters make it unique. There's a reason we all go see chick-flicks, or read a certain kind of book. We enjoy what's familiar...we know what to expect. Nothing wrong with that!