One person’s witty, eloquent brainwave is often another person’s cliche. We are urged to avoid them: story cliches, adjective-with-noun cliches, metaphor cliches, phrase cliches. And how we hate being caught using one. After all, we writers call ourselves creative and we think we are original, daring, imaginative. And that’s especially true of those who have ‘literary fiction’ pretensions.
I’ve been learning the fiction-writing trade for a few years now and over these years I have been humbled to find some of my best ideas cited as examples of the dreaded cliche.
Stories: A peron has died and has become a ghost and doesn’t realise it (unpublished!). I really thought I had invented that one. In another (published in Click to Click: Tales of Internet Dating) someone has a dream wherein he meets a ghost and becomes a better person after that. The ghost is a blackbird – surely that at least is original? But Dickens got there first with the main plotline – does that make it a story cliche?
At least in plotting my second novel (Makeover) I identified as story cliche two people arriving to visit a grave at the same time. I had them visit on consecutive days instead, which was equally effective in a less ‘in your face’ way.
Metaphors: I’ve a fondness for birds of prey hovering, perching or lurking somewhere in the background of otherwise cheerful scenes and ships sailing away into the distance. And stormy weather, of course. All are to be found in my first novel Timed Out. I have since heard all of these described as cliches. On the other hand, I have seen the weather and the ship ones described as ‘universal symbols’. When does a universal symbol become a cliche?
The cliches I dislike most in other people’s writing are those physical signs of emotion beloved of a certain kind of bestselling genre writer. How often do you see someone go ‘beetroot red’ or ‘white as a sheet’ or ‘purple with rage’? – only in extremis. All of these, along with throbbing hearts, trembling hands, and fluttering eyelashes – are they lazy writing, or are they attempts to keep the readers awake and make absolutely sure they get the point? This spelling out of feelings by showing (not telling!) has been singled out for censure by those excellent creative writing teachers Francine Prose (Reading like a Writer) and Harry Bingham (How to Write).
There are of course genre differences. And there are differences depending on date of writing – the hard-bitten policeman has become a character cliche, the ‘feisty’ heroine is fast becoming one, and as for plots – well, every story seems to have been told before. I sometimes make up a tale in which nobody is changed by the end, nobody has a driving ‘want’, nobody has obstacles to overcome. All the women are slim and beautiful and the men are strong-jawed and ruggedly handsome – and not a single quirk or flaw in the lot of them. But then I wake up suddenly and realise it was all a dream.
Note: title supplied by Jeremy Lawrence.