I started writing fiction when I was about fifteen years old. It was 1988, Margaret Thatcher appeared an unstoppable force in the UK, and The Smiths were a popular band. It was misery in politics and misery in the charts. And writing, for me, was an escape.
That’s the clichéd start to how many of these blogs start, isn’t it? “I wrote as an escape.” And for those people who say that they wrote – write – to escape, it remains true. It’s a truth repeated so often that it has become a cliché, albeit one we allow to continue existing, because we don’t want to take anything away from people’s feelings.
But if you read writing blogs that aim to help new authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that clichés are verboten, that they’re forbidden in all creative writing endeavour. And I think this is wrong. If we’re allowed to start writing for the same reason – it was an escape – then why can’t we write clichéd things?
Below, I argue that we can, and indeed should, write in clichés. This argument is very much aimed at people new to fiction writing, to help cut through the confusing ‘rules’ on other blogs.
Reason #1 – The 7 Basic Storylines
There are seven basic plots that underpin all stories, or so argues Christopher Booker in his seminal work The Seven Basic Plots. (You should buy this book.)
These plots are:
- Overcoming the Monster;
- Rags to Riches;
- the Quest;
- Voyage and Return;
Often these plots are combined, such that we might have a Voyage and Return, like Jason & the Argonauts, in which the hero must also Overcome the Monster.
I won’t describe the basic plot types, but the point here is simple: if we can boil all plots down into one of these basic seven types, with a dash of another thrown in depending on the cocktail presented to the reader, then we are quickly bound to clichés anyway.
“A-ha!” you argue, “but if there are only seven basic plots, then shouldn’t we do our best to escape cliché elsewhere?”
Not yet, dear new author. Not yet. Otherwise there’d be no blog for me to write! But let us ignore that inconvenient truth, and explore reason to cliché #2.
Reason #2 – Wriggle, Wiggle, Crawl, Walk, Run, and Fly
Imagine this: you’re a new mother or a new father. There’s your baby just days old. Her or his little fingers wiggle in your hand, their chubby knees squirm at your tickle and their delicate feet are too cute for words. Now, carefully put the baby on the floor in your home, stand back, and say:
“Baby of mine, I want you to stand up right now, walk to the door, run to the nearest airport, buy a plane ticket, hop on the plane and go travelling!”
What do you mean it’s just a baby and it’s impossible? Tell it to fly immediately, damn it!
You get the point. New authors are like new babies. You’re perfect in every one of your toes and fingers, and each of your letters and words on the page is lovely and cute. But like that baby, you need to practice the basics first.
We don’t look at a baby and say, “Oh god, it’s so clichéd, crawling. Come on, little bubba, innovate a different way to strengthen your legs.”
No, we encourage them to wriggle and wiggle. We help them stand until they can stand on their own. We help them to walk by holding their hands, until they can manage their first few steps unaided.
And that’s how it should be when we’re learning to write. Practice the basics first. And that means practicing the clichés. For example:
Develop a simple love story.
Write a story about going into a cave and fighting a monster.
Craft a tale of a hero who is too flawed, and becomes a victim of his flaws and loses everything.
Write in clichés, and write them until you’ve mastered them. Be good at crawling to build leg strength. Be good at walking and upright balance before you start to run. Write in as many clichés as you can, until you can churn them out without even thinking about it. And then think about flying.
Reason #3 – Clichés Have Power
Here’s a few basic plots and characters. See what you think about them:
1. A woman treated like dirt by most of society is noticed by a rich and handsome man. He takes a fancy to her, and rescues her from the poor life she leads. She lives happily ever after.
It’s a cliché, right? And yet Cinderella is famous the world over, and Pretty Woman is one of the most famous films ever made. Why? Because the clichéd story of someone in a low position being rescued by someone in a high position appeals to us. It gives us hope that maybe we, too, can be rescued. Or if not us, then someone just like us.
2. A dark power has cast a blight on society. A small group of apparently weak and insignificant people travel into the heart of the dark power and overcome it. Society is saved.
Another cliché. Like the first example above, it’s one of the basic plots. But we recognise the power in it. The power of the story speaks to us. What did you think this plot was from? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Krull? These are powerful films because they’re clichés, not in spite of them.
Notice where the power lies in these clichés. It’s in their simplicity. Knowing our clichés, mastering their forms, and then using that mastery to unleash the power in the story is what gives us the grounding we need to become competent, good authors.
Reason #4 – Even Famous Authors Aren’t Above A Cliché Now & Again
What’s that? Famous authors use clichés? Yes, and they get away with it, too.
The question, of course, is why do they get away with it? Is it because they’re famous that we’ll forgive them anything?
No. I’d argue it’s because they’ve practised their writing so much, have mastered the basic forms so much, that they have a damn good sense of when to use a cliché. Because the point isn’t that we master a cliché so we can step away from it. Rather, we master clichés so we know when to use them for maximum impact.
Here’s an example from one of my favourite authors:
“[their] eyeballs moved no more than necessary, as with animals on the hunt.” – 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
Is that an innovative way to describe something? Is it beautiful description? Does it soar with beauty? Or colour synaesthetically our emotions? Not particularly. It’s the kind of description we’d find in a thousand books, from the wonderfully written to the absolutely atrocious.
But it doesn’t matter. It may be a clichéd line , but it’s the context in which it’s placed that makes it stand out: two men are in a bar appraising two women. These are men on the prowl, but within the story, so are the women. And it is the women in this scene who have the power. Haruki Murakami is so practised with clichés, that he can deploy them in a way that makes them effective: here stoking the appearance that the men have the power, when we know it’s actually the women. Mastery of the form, “men looking for women are like hunters looking for prey” is what gives him the ability to use it to better effect.
The point is that you can’t innovate or twist a cliché until you know how to use it properly. And to use it properly, you have to use it improperly first. Write in clichés until you’re sick of them and can spot the approaching from a mile off. And then push yourself to use them in an unexpected way.
Reason #5 – The More Creative the Writing, the More It Distracts
I’m falling back on the great Elmore Leonard here. Here are two of his 10 Rules of Writing which he outlined in a New York Times article [source]
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Now, what’s the cliché here? For new writers who are still practising their craft, and who are trying to build their creative writing muscles, one of the most common instructions is this: “Try to find interesting ways of to allow characters to express themselves.” So you’d think that using “… she said,” is bad, and we should write things like, “…she screamed,” or “…he whispered,” or as Elmore says, “…he admonished gravely,” and so on.
Elmore is telling us that in fact we should stick with the clichéd, “…she said.” Why? Because the power of the dialogue should come through how it’s written, punctuated, and the surrounding build up and atmosphere. It’s a cliché to just use “…said”. But that simple form isn’t is a barrier to the characters properly expressing themselves in the narrative. Flowery description (he admonished gravely) is a barrier and distracts from the story and the characters’ emotions.
(And when you feel you’re practised enough with using “…she said,” try dropping it altogether and just putting the speech in, without attribution to a character.)
Of course, Elmore Leonard also said, “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” and he was absolutely right.It’s not they’re clichéd, though. It’s that they’re just awful.
So, there are 5 reasons to use clichés. The blog was aimed at authors still exercising and building their writing muscles. And to them I will always say: use as many clichés as you need to. Master the basic forms and basic approaches to writing, like Daniel in Karate Kid mastered his basic moves in slow motion: first wax on, wax off, and then wax lyrical.
Oh, and that reason I gave at the start about why I started writing? It wasn’t true, it was a cliché and it also gave me a reason to say that The Smiths are rubbish and get away with it. And do you know what? I think I got away with it, too.