There are clichés and there are clichés. Some popular writers fill novels with them. They work, that’s why people use them. Experienced readers, however, can find them off-putting.
There is nothing new under the sun, apparently, and we are told that even the most original plot ideas have been used before in one way or another. Some pundits have worked out that there are only seven real story lines. Others twelve. I know what they’re getting at, but I personally think that there are as many plots as there are stars in the universe, each as full of possibility as the last.
Plot clichés then, are the known and familiar planets; our Solar System, if you like. Well charted, studied through millions of telescope lenses over the years. They are great stories, and every other story, will to some extent, be interpreted through familiarity with them.
These plot clichés have their basis in biblical stories, Greek myths and fairy tales. They are satisfying because many evolved from oral tradition, and stories that grow in this way become better with each telling—sharper conflict, more rounded characters, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Others come from the great storytellers of the last five hundred years or so. The classics. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Would we have had Harry Potter without Tom Brown’s School Days, Goodbye Mr Chips, or even Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers?
Other plot clichés have been done so many times you need a very original slant to make them interesting: man (or woman) loses their memory. Good man spawns evil son. Ne’er do well child of tycoon has to prove himself. The Cinderella idea of a girl with a great heart surrounded by a family of monsters. The ugly duckling plot has been explored in almost every situation. The prodigal son. Kane and Abel. Need I go on?
Be aware, however, that certain genres basically run with one particular plot, and then it becomes a convention rather than a cliché. Cosy romances all have pretty much the same set-up. Australian Rural Fiction often uses an outsider-coming-back-to-the-country plot. These genres generate their readability from their wealth of characterisation, and the strength of the setting.
There is only one way to avoid writing clichéd story lines, and that is to read widely in your chosen genre. Then, if you do use a plot cliché as a framework, you’ll dust it off, give it fresh characters with compelling voices, make it mean something new.
Characters can be clichés too. They’re called archetypes. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.
Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.
The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem, The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers, advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers on a train, or a tea shop. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about everyone I see.
It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the characters that raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around, and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.
Most, but not all, clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. That kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards, he’s a skater. Smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths, and is a talented long-distance runner. Or the old man driving down the road at seventy km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.
The thing that separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the characters’ experiences—what made them as people. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details in very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.
Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German, the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman, the loud American, the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: The boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.
One way to stop yourself writing lots of clichés is to stop writing so fast! Writing 1500 words in an hour is not writing—it’s putting a stream of consciousness onto the page. Your brain is assembling images into words as fast as it can. The quickest way it can do this is to use clichés. They are a kind of image shorthand.
You have to stop, not let your mind choose the easiest pathway, but give it time to find an original and creative idea.
Sometimes that superfast writing is great for an action sequence, or riffing on a theme, where you just open up and see what comes out, worrying about editing later, but if you do it all the time, the editing will be beyond you. And you want to be editing something that’s at least half decent.
Look at the world through your eyes, not someone else’s.
Occasionally clichés can be used to enhance the vernacular of a particular environment: ‘Stone the Crows, Mary, get off your high horse.’
The only way to avoid clichés in your chosen genre is to read, read, read.
Have some fun. Turn archetypes on their ear. Use thoughtful, original detail. If there is a secret to writing, that’s probably it.
© 2018 Greg Barron
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