So you’re writing a novel and you’re worried that the whole idea is just a cliche. Are you automatically nailed? Should you quit that book and start another one? What if that’s also based on a cliche?
Michael posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
So I hope I am not overloading you with questions, but you seem to be very knowlegable. I have been consuming your blog post with the fervor of a child eating cookies, but have noticed a lack of topics pertaining to cliches. It seems to me that cliches are numerous in fiction, and can be the untimely demise of an, otherwise, great novel. On the other hand, it would seem that certain cliches can be used to my advantage.
As an example, I have always been a fan of the coming of age cliche. It started with Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.” The young teen coming of age is a cliche that has been used countless times, but is loved by many fans. How do I differentiate between useable cliches, and the old moth-chewed cliches.
Randy sez: Hi Michael, I’m glad you like my blog. I’ve been traveling a lot this fall, and haven’t had much time to blog. In late October, I made the difficult decision to move the hosting for the blog away from Hostgator (they just couldn’t seem to handle the traffic to my web site). My web developer moved my site to WPEngine, and the site has been rock-solid ever since.
Oops, “rock-solid” was a cliche, wasn’t it? Well, it did the job, and you know what I meant, but it wasn’t the most original way to say it.
And that’s the subject of today’s blog. Are cliches always wrong in fiction?
First, let’s define what we mean by a “cliche.” I use this word to mean a pithy phrase that’s so good that other writers copy it and turn it into part of the language.
If you read Shakespeare, you’ll see loads of cliches in his writing. Not because he was lazy. Because he was the first to use hundreds of pithy phrases, which other writers then reused forever.
Cliches are shortcuts. They save time, because you don’t have to think up some new way to say something.
The problem comes when you never do any original thinking. When you rely on cliches for everything. When you have absolutely nothing new to say.
No writer should do that. A writer’s job is to come up with original ideas. OR to present old ideas in original ways.
Now there’s one place where cliches most definitely belong in your fiction: When you have a character who’s a mediocre thinker, one way to show that is to have him use too many cliches. This shows the reader what the character’s like, rather than telling the reader.
“Show, don’t tell,” is a standard cliche in the world of fiction writing.
Cliches are supposed to be bad writing, because they lack originality.
Let’s be clear that readers aren’t reading mainly for “originality.” They’re reading mainly to get a “powerful emotional experience.” There are plenty of writers out there making a good living by giving their readers powerful emotional experiences, and using loads of cliches in the process.
Now let’s look at your question. You believe that the coming of age novel is a cliche. Personally, I would just call this a design pattern for a story. “Design pattern” is a term that came originally from architecture and then was adopted by software engineers.
A design pattern is an idea that recurs frequently, but can be redone in zillions of different ways so as to allow for some original thinking each time. In architecture, a door is one example of a design pattern. Doors are needed to let people move into and out of a room. Sure, you can buy a stock door from Home Depot and that takes no real thought. Or you can design it to be amazingly original. It’s up to you. So a door can be done in a cliched way, or not, depending on the architect.
I‘d say that the coming of age idea is similar. Sure you can do it in a cliched way. But you can also do it in a new, fresh way.
What this means is that the coming of age idea is not itself a cliche. It’s a design pattern.
There just aren’t that many original ideas. In fact, you can’t copyright an idea. What you copyright is the presentation of the idea. Because there are zillions of ways to present any idea, and it’s possible to be original in the presentation.
So don’t worry too much if the category or subcategory that you’re writing is a cliche. Worry first about putting in that powerful emotion experience. And then worry about presenting your story in a new and original way.
It’s a rare writer who can invent a whole new category. Tolkien did it, when he invented the fantasy genre. Tom Clancy probably invented the technothriller subcategory.
But most writers most of the time are writing in standard categories and subcategories. Nothing wrong with that.
Good luck with your writing, Michael, and have fun!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. Of course, I can’t possibly answer all questions, but I do what I can.