Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Benefits of Being Cliche

Word Count: 29,868

I've been thinking. (Ah! RUN!)

Being cliche isn't such a bad thing, if you use it properly. You may now be wondering what the heck properly using cliches could be, and I'll happily tell you, then you tell me if you agree.

Here's the closest example to what I mean:

Dialogue tags. The general school of thought is to use beats of action to denote who's talking. But sometimes you can't help but use a "said" or, oh noes, a "replied." Even a lot of the "he stuttered," "murmured," "answered," etc. used in place of "said." These words are invisible to the eye because we are so used to seeing them. The brain jumps right over them and on to the important stuff: the dialogue. And here's where cliches come in.

I think cliches are invisible. I think our brains are so used to knowing what they mean that we immediately infer valuable information from them and move on. Information that may not be able to be conveyed any other way in the story at that moment. So while I know cliches are a general no-no, they do have their purpose.

Take this example from my new WIP. I have three guys sitting in a bar. My MC has just told them that he's ex-Army Special Forces, and the line goes something like:

"[They] look at me as if I've grown a new arm."

Now, this is only one word different than a cliche statement, and when I read it, it takes my mind out of the story very briefly to process the new phrase. Whereas if I had used:

"[They] look at me as if I've grown a third arm."

the brain tends to jump right over this and process it immediately, because it's so familiar. Third arm. Got it. Check. Moving on.

So why is this beneficial? Let's say you've got a scene that's more focused on the action, but you need some setting. You don't want to bog down the action with description, so you can pepper it throughout, but you can also make your description, particularly of lower consequence items or areas, invisible to the reader by using cliche. Her hair shone like the sun. It was a crisp fall morning. It was a dark and stormy night.

Now, in my example above, I am avoiding cliche because I want my reader to slow down here a second and process what I'm trying to say. But if this scene was snappy dialogue and fast paced, I would go ahead and use the cliche, so the reader would infer everything I was trying to say without getting pulled into thinking about what I just said.

Cliches can be broader, too. The setting for most of my book is, by definition, cliche. It's a racist Southern town. There's not much I can do there that hasn't been done. But that's ok. It gives my reader expectations about the town that I don't have to fill in for them. Instead, I can move right on into the twist and NOT-cliche that is my MC. This is probably the single biggest difference I'm feeling between genres right now, by the way. In Fantasy, you have to describe every ounce of your world because no one's seen it before except you. This whatever-I'm-writing is pretty nice because the rules are already there.

I'm not saying your whole book should be cliche, cliche, cliche, especially if it's action packed. Please, don't. But here and there, cliches aren't the awful thing that most writers (at least in my crit group, and a few online) seem to think they are. Sometimes they have benefits.

What are your thoughts?


  1. If you haven't already taken a gander at you totally should. It'll kill an entire afternoon, but there's a wealth of knowledge on there about things you can reasonably expect your audience to know already when reading your book.

    Tre useful.

  2. I've heard over and over again that cliches are bad, bad, bad. I try to avoid them, but I see your point. I have a few phrases in my ms that my crit buddies have told me were cliche, but I'm leaving them in for similar reasons as you mention here. It's that old thought that bending the rules isn't always bad.

  3. Taking a cliche and mixing it up a bit can be a good thing, b/c the reader will still understand the meaning, but mixing it up too much could just confuse. And I agree with Susan -- a few cliches are fine, though if there's another way to say it (without putting your head in a vise), try to do it that way.

  4. Matt- It was hard to navigate that site. Just looked like a search compiler. Is there a more specific link/ area for what you're talking about?

    LW- Yay I'm not alone :)

    Bane- Absolutely. I am preaching moderation, for sure. But my main point is that inclusion of a few per MS is not going to blow anyone's head off and might even help, if used properly.

  5. D'oh! I always screw that up ... the actual website is Sorry!

  6. I HAD to check out the website... and yes, i invested a few hours in it already.. and will be back like a junkie for another hit.

    As far cliche's, I'm with you.. I use them, but make sure they are carefully placed.

    Great post!

  7. My rule of thumb on cliches (hehehe...) is that if they're in spoken dialogue they're okay. That's how people talk so it flows smoother, just as you mentioned, L.T.

    But if they're not in dialogue I either tweak them or find some other way to say what I'm trying to get across.

  8. I agree with Susan and Bane - moderation is the key. And Stephanie has a point about using them in dialogue.

    I'm aware of the cliche issue in my own writing, but sometimes, when I try too hard to tweak a cliche, it ends up being awkward and more "visible" than a simple cliche would have been. LOL!

  9. Jm- Thanks! I'm not sure it's the right thing, but I kind of wanted to dissect why I don't think they're all bad. Or delude myself into thinking it's ok. Either way.

    Stephanie- I generally do the same. Consider this post my rebellion against the system and acceptance of a cliche here and there, though. :)

    Laura- That's another really good point, too. Agh. Writing is hard.