Clichés: Criminal or Comfort Food?
Written by
Karyne Corum
June 2013
Written by
Karyne Corum
June 2013

Cliché. The very word strikes terror into the hearts of writers everywhere.They shudder at the image of a hackneyed character stalking their plots like Hamlet’s ghost.

This viewpoint has galvanized the writing community for decades with a rallying cry that the reign of clichés must end!

But what if that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Or beating a dead horse? What if, just possibly, clichés speak a common language that brings security, and even contentment to readers?

Richard Nordquist in in his piece, Cliché states “But like so many of the "rules" of writing, the common handbook admonition to avoid clichés is a simplification of a complex idea.….some would argue that being interesting is not always the writer's intention--and that it's virtually impossible not to rely on some "worn-out phrases" (itself a worn-out phrase) if we're to be understood when we write.”

There is nothing a writer likes more than when a reader really “gets” what they are trying passionately to convey in their stories. The universal message. The point of it all. Clichés are the worn out but necessary rungs on the ladder to this goal.

The saying goes there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. I’m not proposing we should all just saturate our story telling with worn out characters or tired plot twists but, there has to be some sort of treasure in the trash of the cliché slush pile.

Hollywood certainly hasn’t forsaken the infamous cliché. The movie industry makes its bread and butter on it.

We’ve all seen enough horror movies to know that if you are female, wearing high heels and carrying a flimsy light source, you should definitely NOT go into the basement to investigate that strange noise you just heard.

But they always do and honestly we wouldn't have it any other way. We might shout at them, tell them to hide in the closet, but we really like it much better when after falling down several times,  they manage to face the killer with a shotgun and don’t stop shooting till there isn’t enough left to shoot.

When the Scream movie came out, it broke box office records. It blatantly poked fun at the horror movie cliché, the so-called “rules of horror movies”, all the while giving us a very traditional horror movie. It took a cliché hamburger, wrapped it in lettuce and served it up as some mighty tasty fare. It was also enormously successful. Because it gave audiences what they wanted while slipping in some new and inventive twists.

If clichés didn’t work, then why did the Twilight books sell in the millions? Because we’ve never heard of a star crossed romance or a vampire/human one? Why read a romance novel at all when you pretty much know that, in spite of everything they go through, it winds up the same at the end. Girl + Boy= Happily Every After. Who would want to read a romance that kills everybody off in the end? Even Romeo and Juliet left some people standing. Body count was capped at six.

It’s interesting to note that the romance genre was one of the few that thrived during the recession. That speaks volumes as to what people wanted during uncertain times. Who says you can’t live on love?

Why do clichés survive when writers are working so hard to eradicate the pesky infestation? These cockroaches of the literary world seem to prove that you just shouldn’t underestimate the power of safe. Clichés are safe and people are drawn to them like the blue plate special down at the local diner. (Trust me, I’m a Jersey girl and we know diner food like we know malls).

It's simple. Clichés are literary comfort food. The meatloaf and mashed potatoes meal that mom cooks after a bad day at school.  The sort of fleecy padded hook that so many readers love to settle down and hold onto like that dear lovey we had as kids (and some of us still do). The language they speak to a reader is about what is familiar and what is often beloved.

Most of my writer friends and even foes strive zealously to avoid anything ever remotely related to the dreaded C word.  I’ve known writers to stamp out even the tiniest bit of clichés as vehemently as Smoky the Bear stamps out forest fires. But, that has become its own cliché. Writers who try so hard to make a character or a plot so anti-cliché that it borders on the ridiculous. Whether it’s the characters colorful career choice or the words that trip so flowingly from their tongue as if they’d taken advanced degrees in slick and clever. They cease to have any remote resemblance of believability.

At large the writing world seems as if it's trying to reinvent the reader, perform a Pygmalion on them. They want to create the reader they want instead of working with what already exists.

Note: Henry Higgins didn’t get the girl in the end, until the public demanded that they turn a realistic ending into a clichéd one.  Shaw protected his original ending with a ferocious sense of integrity. The one where Eliza does not come back to Henry except to say good-bye as she goes off and marries Freddy. He went so far as to add a postscript essay to the 1916 print edition that explained precisely why Higgins and Eliza could never get married.

The Lerner and Loewe adaption, My Fair Lady, would thoroughly circumvent his wishes and reinvent the ending. This, to suit a public that demanded a happy ending, and that ending remains, at large, the most recognizable and endearing one.

To pretend that readers don’t, to a certain degree, actually relish clichés is like saying no one loves a thick, gooey bowl of mac and cheese even if they are eating salad for every other meal.  Readers gravitate towards certain clichés because they know exactly what they are going to get. That is what writers can tend to forget, and woe to them if they do. Writers write for readers, not for writers.

Lets give credit where credit's due. Clichés serve a purpose and in many cases, an invaluable one.They have formed some of the most famous and infamous literary creations. Starcrossed lovers. Justice for a murder victim. The showdown between hero and villain. A race to stop armageddon. Environmental crusader versus Megacorporation. These can draw a reader to a book like Kim Kardashian to a camera lens.

This is where a writer cuts their teeth. Taking aspects of what has already been told and finding a clever but not preposterous way to re-tell it. Mastering this vital aspect of the craft is like learning how to make a great spaghetti sauce from your grandmother's recipe. You can stick to the original out of fear of what might go wrong, but a far more brave cook knows how to make a sauce their own unique creation.

What’s your take on the cliché? Should they be abolished forever? Should we learn to work with them to create our own unique voice?


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