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How Many Cliches Spoil The Brew?

death's_vacation_layoutHappy Friday, everyone! I started out today feeling ultra-lame because I didn’t even have a ghost of an idea about the regular Friday post. But I’ve got news, so we’ll get to that first. To the left you’ll see the cover for Death’s Excellent Vacation, an anthology coming out in August 2010. There’s a ton of awesome authors in it–LA Banks, Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, and Jeaniene Frost, to name a few. My story, The Heart Is Always Right, focuses on a gargoyle who wants to visit Fiji.

I’m also doing #askawriter tonight on Twitter, from 7-7:30PM. When I do schedule #askawriter and other chats, they will be on my Event Calender.

So I mentioned I was having trouble getting a subject for the Friday post, and Devon Monk piped up that a Deadline Dames reader had asked about cliches in fiction–when it’s OK, when it’s too much, so on, so forth.

My, what a meaty subject.

From Wikipedia:

A cliché (US: /klɪˈʃeɪ/ UK: /ˈkliːʃeɪ/, from French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. It is likely to be used pejoratively. A cliché may sometimes be used in a work of fiction for comedic effect.

I have mixed feelings on the subject of cliches. Expressions that were once popular and have achieved the status of cliche usually have some kernel of truth to them. They can be useful in small doses, especially when you’re fleshing out a character through dialogue. The type of cliche a character picks in certain situations is, ahem, a window to the soul.

Cliches are like exclamation points or Dave’s Insanity Sauce. You don’t want to use more than a little bit to add some spice and heat. It’s very easy to add too much and descend into inedible bathos.

For me, the problem of cliche is similar to the problem of metaphor and simile. On the one hand, the poetic comparison of metaphor and simile gives writing a lot of its savor. On the other, it’s possible to choke the other important parts–description, movement, le mot juste, et cetera.

So. How much cliche is OK?

We get into dangerous waters here (ha) because writing is so incredibly subjective. If I gave any metric–say, seven cliches per book–immediately someone can find a classic (satire or otherwise) or an incredibly popular book that breaks that rule. Some books are nothing but stock characters and cliche (hello, most Westerns and and the technical manuals of Clancy, the Mack Bolan series–need I go on?) and still manage to do quite well because they are fulfilling reader expectations. I don’t think it’s possible to have a cliche-free book, because human beings use cliches on a daily basis.

When I worked retail and customer service, cliches were stock-in-trade. You take refuge in verbal cliches day after day to smooth social interaction and provide the “service” people expect. It’s social lubricant. If you interact with people on a daily basis, cliche will come along every day, because it’s safe and easy communication.

In writing, cliches can be safe and easy sometimes. They can even be useful. You can have cliche dialogue, cliche description, or cliche plot. Let’s take them one at a time.

* Cliche dialogue: This is by far the most effective use of cliche. To have a character choose a particular cliche in a situation is a golden opportunity to show more about that person. Let’s pick a cliche. “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Simple, huh?

“But who’ll take care of me?” he whined.

Mrs. Edison shrugged, gathering up her pocketbook. “I don’t know, Herb. All I know’s I ain’t gonna no more.”


“For years you were that rollin stone, gatherin no moss. If you’d’a gathered some moss here maybe I coulda lived on that and stayed. You can wash you own damn underwear now.” And with that, she headed for the door. She stepped outside into the fragrance of blossoming jasmine, and sighed. Sliding her purse onto her shoulder, Mrs. Edison took the first three steps into the rest of her life.

Now, let’s have another character use this cliche.

“Saving your ass, kid.” He ducked down, and dug in the bag at his feet. His eyes sparkled, cheeks flushed, and he looked like he was having a hell of a time. “Whooo-ee. They really want you dead.”

Holly’s jaw dropped as he came up with three grenades. He tugged the pin out of the first, lobbed it, and had the second in the air a second later. The third went too, and before she even thought of moving he had grabbed her, shoving her toward the floor. The explosions made the ground quiver, and Holly’s scream was lost in the concrete, his weight pressing all the air out of her.

Then he was up again, his hand bruising-tight around her arm. “Time to go. Rolling stone gathers no moss.”

“You’re insane.” Her ears rang. Her legs were noodles. But he picked up his bag and dragged her anyway.

Different characters use the cliche for different reasons, and each time it says something different about the character.

* Cliche description: Strong as a horse. Mean as a rattlesnake. Papa was a rolling stone. A cliche description can be used to add piquancy, but you must be absolutely certain you are using it for spice instead of laziness. It’s like the word “that”–nine times out of ten it’s not necessary, and you should make very sure of the tenth time too. Cliche description is most often a function of cliche storytelling–i.e., stock characters and stock situations.

* Cliche storytelling: The wacky gay best friend. The sidekick. The hero in the white hat. The villain playing dead and rising up for one last grab at the hero. The love scene right after the fight scene, one-third of the way through the movie. These are all examples of stock characters and stock situations. We’ve grown to expect them, and they have been with us since people started telling stories.

These things are useful shorthand, telling a reader what to expect. They are forms and strictures, and any form or stricture is useful to help a piece of art hold its shape. Otherwise it’s just a huge blob, like a body without a skeleton or skin. Without the framework and boundaries, all you’ve got is quivering Jell-O.

But the real fun comes in subverting the forms and strictures. Cliches and stock storytelling are useful training wheels for writers. They teach us expectations, story pacing, and what the reader expects. You absolutely must know and use them for a while before you know enough to break them effectively, to subvert and play with them, stand them on their head and change them up. Within the forms and strictures is a type of absolute freedom that is the paradox of art.

When are cliches too much? When you’re using them unconsciously, or out of laziness. You must be as vigilant about cliche as you are about the passive voice. If you spot a cliche in your work, you really have to stop and think. Ask yourself these questions:

* Does it move the story along?
* Does it show something about this character that I can’t show in another way, or that I don’t want to show in another way? Why?
* Is this how someone would behave in real life, or is this how they would behave in a movie? And which do I want here for the purposes of this book/short story?
* Does this set up an expectation I am going to fulfill or deny? Why?
* Is there another way to do this?
* What would happen if the character did/said Something Else, something diametrically opposed to or just slightly different than what I’ve got here now?

These are all valuable questions that will start the process of deciding whether the cliche is necessary and an artistic decision instead of a lazy piece o’prop. And of course, your beta and editor, not to mention your readers, will have their own ideas of what’s cliche, how much is too much, and whether the character is behaving the way Someone Like That would behave. It’s a balancing act, like so much about this art. The older I get, the more I think everything is a balancing act, stacking things against each other and holding the tightwire middle course.

What, you thought I’d have a hard and fast rule?

Perish the thought.

Note: No cliches were harmed in the making of this post. A number of electrons were horribly inconvenienced and a few grammatical rules were assaulted, but everyone agreed it was for the best.