In praise of the cliché

by Suw on June 25, 2011

Suzannah Windsor Freeman, writer of Write It Sideways, has a post about how important it is to avoid cliché in writing. She splits clichés into three main types:

  • Overused expressions
  • Hackneyed plots
  • Stereotypical characters

And she gives her readers some good advice on how to avoid them.

But clichés aren’t all bad. The human brain uses heuristics – rules of thumb – to help it efficiently deal with the world without having to work everything through from first principles. For example, if someone throws a ball at you, you don’t do differential calculus in your brain to figure out where you need to be in order to catch it, you just keep your eye on the ball and your brain figures it out. This is the ‘gaze heuristic’.

Wikipedia says:

In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules, hard-coded by evolutionary processes or learned, which have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information. These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic errors or cognitive biases.

Clichés are a kind of heuristic: They are shortcuts to an understanding of the world that is roughly in line with reality. Clichés becomes clichés because we see a nugget of truth in them.

For example, Suzannah says:

Common sayings (or idioms) like “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” are cliched. They once held truth and meaning, but through overuse have become meaningless.

Now, “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” might be overused, but they do still have meaning and we all instantaneously understand what the writer is trying to say when using them. The problem is not so much with the phrases themselves, but with the context in which they are used. In a quotidian context, quotidian phrases fall flat. In a compelling context, quotidian phrases can move the story along quickly and seamlessly, and the reader won’t even notice that they’ve just been run over by a cliché.

(As an aside, I’ll note that some of Suzannah’s examples, such as “Needless to say,” “At this point in time,” “Each and every one,” are actually pleonasms, or needless phrases, rather than straight clichés. Allan Guthrie has the most awesome tipsheet on pleonasms which every writers should read.)

In rejecting cliché, there’s a serious risk that the inexperienced writer concocts something even worse to replace it with. Instead of “The sun set behind the hawthorn” you end up with “The golden orb had almost disappeared behind the interlacing fingers of the hawthorn”. If a cliché doesn’t interrupt the flow of reading, if it’s not noticeable, or if a replacement would be worse, then there’s nothing wrong with letting a sleeping cliché lie.

Clichés of character, aka stereotypes, are similar: the buxom barmaid, the ornery farmer, the dashing young man. They are heuristics which exist because there’s some reality in them. Buxom barmaids may not be the only type of barmaid, but they’re the type that most men (and probably a lot of women) will remember. Farmers are stubborn and ornery because so are cattle. And dashing young men dash because they are young and male (cf barmaids and selective memory).

By themselves, even stereotypes are no bad thing when you’re drawing a cartoon of a character, rather than a painting a portrait. In the right context, and with the right characterisation, stereotypes can even be fascinating central characters in their own right.

Take wizards. You have the wise, white-haired, long-bearded types like Gandalf, and you have the ditzy, inept, self-aggrandising types like Ridcully, and you have the kindly, paternal, caring type like Dumbledore. These three archetypal wizards are all stereotypes (they are actually stereotypes of academics with added magic), but in the right places, these stereotypes work. You might argue that these characters themselves created the stereotypes, and you might be right, but if you’re writing a wizard character now, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a completely unique take on the wizard format, because the chances are someone has done it already.

Again, that’s no big deal, because although someone might already have written a wizard a bit like your wizard, they haven’t written your story, with your wizard, his dialogue, his backstory, his character arc. So long as he fits into the story as he should, it’s all good.

Indeed, the search for the unique again often results in the painful. The young boy coming into his powers as an Old One amidst a loving and supportive family might seem trite and clichéd. But when you turn that character’s family into an arguing, divided, sullen mess, you actually undermine the very qualities that make Will Stanton capable of success and turn him into the kind of stereotype that makes Susan Cooper fans want to tear their eyes out.

Furthermore, if you subsume your storytelling into a search for the unique, well, you’re fucked. The unique is as attainable as The Way of the Dao De Jing – it is only possible to find The Way if you are not looking for it. The Story is as The Way. You cannot seek to be ‘different’ and ‘unique’ and find The Story. Only in telling The Story as it demands to be told may you perhaps find something different and unique.

Finally, clichéd plot. Well, let’s be brutally honest here. If you want to sell, a bit of clichéd plot can go a long way towards your success. Not everyone wants to have their preconceptions challenged, and some of the most successful books have some of the most hackneyed plots. And as you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, some of those books have the most hackneyed characters and prose too.

We might look down on some of these books, but there’s no denying that an easy, fast read which is compelling enough to keep you turning pages does not have to have unique characters, does not have to have plot that’s different, and can be written in the clunkiest prose, and still sell well. Truth is that, so long as you’re not too egregious, or at least not so egregious that a publisher can’t look past the cliché and see the pound signs, you should be fine.

I’m reminded at this point of the advice I was giving by my photography tutor a many years back: No professional photographer is surprised by what’s in the background of his/her photographs, because s/he has seen it all through the lens before the photo was taken. No professional writer should be surprised by the clichés they read in their own work, because they should have been aware of them as they were writing or on first read through.

The question is not, “Is it a cliché?”, but “Does this piece of writing seamlessly serve a purpose?” If the cliché works, it’s not a cliché.

Stefan Lubomirski de Vaux - photography by lubo October 3, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Hi Suw,

I am a fan of writing, but only good at the beginnings of stories, many of which areclichéd but fun, so I created a blog for people who have the complementary skill to mine – finishing stories!
Do have a look and tell me what you think!? I would also like to invite you to a breakfast networking event that happens every Thursday morning in Notting Hill if your interested in meeting other professionals and giving and getting referrals do get in touch.
Best regards, Stefan

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