A Plague of Cliches, and How to Avoid Them – or Not

Gil J Wolman

Last week I talked about originality and authenticity, but just because writers don’t have to worry about coming up with an original idea, doesn’t mean that we are immune to cliche.

Of course, you can go to TV Tropes and see just how popular a particular idea or trope is by how many entries are listed. While this will give you some idea, it’s not always a good indicator of what ideas are tired and which ones are vastly popular because they are tapping today’s  zeitgeist. 

As Stephen King (and many others) said, to be a good writer you have to be a reader. Reading around the genre you’re writing in will really help you know what’s trending and what’s beginning to feel played. Of course, everything that you’ll find in the bookstore and the library has been published, so on some level it’s passed minimum requirement for originality (yes, even zombies and vampires – see zeitgeist). If you want to take your reading to the next level:

Reach out to the editors of your favorite independent genre zines. (you are reading them already, right?) They always need slush readers. There is no better way to become familiar with what’s being done, and what’s being done to death. If you don’t have the time for that kind of unpaid extracurricular activity, there are a couple excellent resources out there. 

Things We’ve Seen Too Often

Here are just the first four items on Strange Horizons’ excellent list:

  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says “I want to be at point B.” Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.
    1. Writer has writer’s block.
    2. Painter can’t seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person’s work is reviled by critics who don’t understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist’s attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.

There are 51 items on this list. Read them all. It’s a class in itself. In the end, this list isn’t so much about overused thematic tropes as it is about the multitude of pitfalls that a newbie writer can fall into. 

The Lexicon grew out of the Turkey City Workshop to give attendees a common language for critique.  Learning how to talk about writing techniques is an important developmental step. The items on this list illustrate the kinds of missteps that, when embedded in your prose, will give your story a hackneyed feel no matter how brilliant the other elements might be. Entries include:

Call a Rabbit a Smeerp: A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses.
Dischism: The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome.

As far as thematic cliches, sometimes they can feel like a gauntlet thrown down, and I’m all for bucking the system. If you’re going to try to spin gold out of a leaden trope, you’ll have a better chance if you’r familiar with what you’re up against. And, if you bring your most original, un-cliched writing to bear on your story, you might be able to write something that is the exception to the rule. 

Joshua Kemble via Threadless. Get this, or his League of Cliche Super-Villains as a tee-shirt for a wearable reminder!

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