Once upon a time: Clichés in writing

by Pari

Last week I wrote a short story featuring a fiction writer in the future. Each morning she goes to work and her thoughts are harvested for stories. People known as “The Watchers” decide which of her ideas are the most marketable. In the afternoon, my poor protag must flesh out and complete those tales.

Problem is, my character is bored with their choices. The Watchers always pick the same general ideas. Originality, it seems, is frowned upon.

When I wrote the story, I wasn’t actively thinking about clichés.

I am now.

You know what? I think most of us treat clichés in a very cliché’d manner.
Editors, critics, reviewers, readers — we all condemn them.
Oh, no! They’re hackneyed, formulaic, unoriginal, tired

Bull.

Deep down we crave clichés for the comfort they give us, for their efficiency and predictability.

This week I developed a taxonomy of clichés that centers on four main categories:

1.  Phrases
►  So hungry I could eat a cow
►  Eyes like limpid pools
►  High as a kite 

2.  Literary Devices
► Ticking clock
► Cliffhangers at ends of chapters
► Multiple POVs to give a sense of urgency

3.  Characters
► Protag with crippling problems – alcoholism, traumatic past
► Brilliant scientist who is also really, really hot
► Bumbling policeman who never sees the most obvious clues

4.  Themes
► Mysterious stranger arrives in town. All hell breaks loose either for the character . . . or the town.
► Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl hate each other. Boy and Girl fall in love.
► A world is in peril. Hapless man/woman meets sexy scientist (see category #3). They save it in the nick of time.

So why do some of these “overworked” concepts sometimes work while others don’t?

I’m reading Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector right now. It’s got the ticking clock for sure. Both of the main protags – Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs – have enough emotional baggage to sink the QEII. And don’t tell me that SERIAL KILLER isn’t a cliché theme all its own.

Yet the book is a riveting read.

Is it really possible that there’s “no new idea under the sun?”
That plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — which, of course, is a cliché — is the reality?

That still doesn’t explain the difference between successful clichés and those that make us want to throw a book across the room.

Is it merely a question of how they’re employed, the way a story is told?

I honestly don’t know.

Do you?

Let’s discuss it . . .

Give me your theories.
► Create new categories of clichés.

► Correct mine.

► Tell me of a cliché that drives you bonkers.

► Find a cliché that works and tell me why.

 



45 thoughts on “Once upon a time: Clichés in writing

  1. Cornelia Read

    I’m not a fan of prologues told from the serial-killer’s POV, or the victim’s, in which a beautiful hot young chick is being chased/tortured/stalked anonymously, and then "everything goes dark." Especially if it’s in present tense, and especially if the next scene opens with the detective having coffee or a shower in the morning and a really banal cranky conversation with his/her spouse.

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  2. Vicky McAulay

    I like cliches for their economy. Rather than spend numerous words describing something, a cliche will often tell you exactly what it looks like or feels like in a short familiar phrase. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But they should be used sparingly, otherwise the author can seem too lazy, as though it wasn’t worth the effort to be original. Why re-invent the wheel? On the other hand, inventing a new mouse trap could be the next best thing to sliced bread.

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  3. JD Rhoades

    The private eye, the amateur sleuth, the dedicated cop who cares less about the rules and his career than he cares about solving the crime–you could call all of those cliches. But those are the tropes that help define our genre. It’s all in finding fresh things to do with them. Put that cop in an alternate history where the Jews were resettled in Alaska rather than Palestine, and you have THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, one of the best books I read last year.

    Or, like Michael Connelly, you could make that cop such a compelling and well-written character that no one (or practically no one) rolls their eyes and goes, "geez. Harry Bosch is such a cliche".

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  4. pari noskin taichert

    Yeah, Cornelia,
    I don’t understand what that last one is about. Sure, you might want to slow the action down a little — but I doubt most writers want to actually jettison the reader out of the story. That’s what happens to me. I put the book down.

    Life is too short.

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  5. pari noskin taichert

    Ha! Vickey,
    Loved the last sentence of your post.

    Some would claim that cliches don’t describe, that they leave too much to the imagination. I’ve found them to be incredibly appropriate in dialog b/c I don’t know a single person who doesn’t use them in day-to-day speech.

    Also, I think some of us use them without realizing it; they’re so ingrained it’s easy to think you’re coming up with something original <g>.

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  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    I don’t always stay away from cliches in my prose and dialogue. Things like "That idiot was higher than a kite." (although I’m not sure I’d ever use that one.)

    There are times when I look at lines like this and try to find a pleasing alternative, but many times I just leave it. Why?

    Because that’s how we think and speak. We tend to use cliches. We tend to LOVE cliches. I don’t know if you can get through a day with hearing at least a couple. So I’m only reflecting reality when I leave it in.

    You’re right, Pari. We DO crave them.

    I love characters with a tragic past. I love alcoholic cops. I love the romantic comedy formula and the mystery formula and the thriller formula. They’re comfortable to me. Which is why I watch Law and Order every week and read old Gold Medal suspense books and series like Bosch. Because they really do it for me, despite any possible cliches.

    When someone uses the suspense formula, brilliantly, then suddenly strays from it in the end — the movie version of No Country for Old Men comes to mind — I give the guy credit, but I’m ultimately disappointed.

    I want my happy ending. I don’t want to suddenly switch protagonists in the last twenty minutes (although I have to say it actually worked for William Friedken in Live and Die in LA — there are always exceptions).

    Great writing does not require us to avoid cliche, but to MAKE IT NOT MATTER that we didn’t avoid it.

    Oh, and I love the short story idea. It’s one of those that makes me say to myself, gee I wish I’d thought of that.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Dusty,
    That’s how I felt about the Deaver book. I could see all the cliches but they didn’t bother me because it was such an enjoyable read. His pacing was really wonderful. And even Cornelia’s "everything going black" moments in the book worked because you always had the sense that the case was uppermost in Rhyme’s mind.

    As for flaunting the rules and not giving a damn about oneself, I think you’re right that they’re mainstays of our genre. Those characteristics are heroic, aren’t they? Cliche, but heroic. The transcendence of self in favor of the greater good.

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  8. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks for the comment about the short story, Rob. I’m going to be sending it out this week. I didn’t mention the part where she learns that in the past there was something called "copyright." <g>.

    I don’t avoid cliches either — not when they’re appropriate. Sometimes you don’t want the writing to stand out with fresh imagery, that’s not what’s important in that moment.

    But it DOES irk me that people are so quick to accuse others of being cliche or using cliches — as if that’s a deadly sin — when, in fact, often it’s just fine (ie NOT lazy or unprofessional) to use them.

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  9. Eika

    I like using cliche’s to my advantage. "Forget kite, he was over the moon," is one I have yet to use, but absolutely love. The cliche ‘high as a kite’ is referenced, but not used- you know exactly what I mean, and get a great idea.

    I also experiment with them. I have a character who grew up in intense isolation, and doesn’t know many basic things. Yes, she can deal with bears, wolves, live off the land for years, etc. but the first time she sees a toilet she demands to know why they pee in the water supply. Recently, she had a thermometer explained to her. In a future scene, I’m going to have someone mention ‘high as a kite’ and have her assume a kite is a measurement on it. Or that a kite is a similar measurement system- I’m not sure which, I don’t have the scene specifics down yet.

    Taking things people are sure about and turning them on their heads in ways that make sense is FUN.

    Reply
  10. Gar Anthony Haywood

    The cliche I can’t stand the most is revenge. Arghhh!

    (Is shouting "Arghhh!" a cliche? Just wondering…)

    Stuck for a protag’s motive? Revenge! His enemy killed his wife, or his daughter, or his entire family, or his partner, or his favorite barmaid, or… ENOUGH already! Stretch those brain muscles just a little bit farther and see if you can’t come up with a different, more unusual reason for your character to be in motion.

    Please.

    Biggest fight I ever had with a former editor was over some jacket copy she wrote:

    "BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. But all was not as it seemed."

    Arghhh!

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  11. pari noskin taichert

    Good morning, Eika.

    I like your examples very much. What you’re doing it transforming the cliches into something that makes us pause — for a pleasurable moment — and think. That’s the opposite of how cliches work most of the time; we’re barely conscious of them. They roll over us like water off a duck’s back.

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  12. Lance C.

    Here’s an addition to Category 3 (characters): the omnicompetent ex-spy/ex-Special Forces operative, either as protag or villain. He can kill twenty heavily armed gang members/trained assassins/SWAT team members/mercenaries with a broomstick, perform brain surgery with his Leatherman and a fifth of Jack Daniels, break into any locked space (including CIA headquarters), knows fifteen languages, and never gets shot/stabbed in any part of his body other than his shoulder, which doesn’t slow him down. *Yawn*

    Reply
  13. Robert Gregory Browne

    I have to disagree with you Gar. Some of my favorite stories and movies are about revenge. The new cop movie coming up with Mel Gibson — Edge of Darkness — looks like the kind of revenge story I love. The desire for revenge is a powerful emotion that all of us would experience if put in a certain situation and although WE might not act on it, we want a hero who can do what we can’t.

    And an antagonist acting for revenge isn’t really all that uncommon either. Just look at gang wars.

    Don’t sell revenge stories short. They’re great for that gut level excitement.

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  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Great post, as always. Interesting list of clichés, because I know I’m guilty of one or two. Mainly the ‘character with the traumatic past’ and the ‘cliffhangers at the end of chapters’ bits. Sorry :-[

    But, there are only a certain number of plots out there. What matters is the combination, the approach, and the way your characters interact within the parameters of the story. Almost anything, well handled, can be a riveting read. The best plot in the world, badly handled, sucks big time.

    My ‘put-the-book-down-immediately’ cliché when it comes to plots is the one where the husband dies – or appears to die – unexpectedly, and the wife discovers he’s been leading a secret double life that now puts her in extreme danger while she tries to figure out what the man she never really knew was up to. I’m sure there are some brilliant versions of this tale out there, but the very idea turns me off.

    Speaking of ticking clocks as a cliché, I’ve just read Lee Child’s 61 HOURS. The whole story is a ticking clock, counting down those hours, with a time given at the end of each section. Cliché? I don’t know, but it kept me reading until 3am, I can tell you!

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  15. Louise Ure

    I think there’s a difference between a cliche and a literary trope and I’d put some of your Literary Devices and Themes in the trope category. They’re seen everywhere because they work.

    But the use of cliched phrases boils me. My personal bete noire? "I made a mental note to …"

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  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I had a professor in college who did me right. He kicked the cliches out of my writing, and I defended myself fiercely against him. I fought for my cliches, I said they were convenient short-cuts that allowed the reader to know exactly what I meant to say without me having to drag them through long, detailed descriptions. My professor kept repeating, "Yes, but they are not your words. You didn’t write them." Ultimately it got through my thick head…I have to be original. Since then I’ve avoided cliches like the plague…uh…for the most part…

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  17. Brett Battes

    I like what Rob said: "Great writing does not require us to avoid cliche, but to MAKE IT NOT MATTER that we didn’t avoid it." That’s it to a tee as far as usage goes.

    Reply
  18. Darlene Ryan

    I know it’s cliched, but I’m a sucker for a good revenge story, although I’m not sure what that says about me. What I do find cliched is having every man in a two hundred mile radius enamoured with the heroine.

    One of my all-time favorite children’s books is The Paperbag Princess because Munsch takes all the p[rincess/fairy tale cliches and turns them inside out.

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  19. pari noskin taichert

    Gar,
    I’ve been reading the other comments so far and REVENGE is an interesting "trope" (as Louise would call it). I think it has to be truly believable and that’s where things get sticky because so many books overdo it.

    But in life, revenge does motivate many of us. Doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s not even deadly; it’s the coming from behind — proving everyone wrong — variety. And I love those stories.

    However, "All was not as it seemed" kills me for all the wrong reasons. WHAT was she thinking??

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  20. derek Nikitas

    I had to laugh at Stephen’s response because now I’m that professor fighting against cliche in my student’s stories. What a cliche!

    I agree with Louise that one should distinguish between literary conventions and tropes versus cliches. The former are structural elements and generally unavoidable (even desirable), while the latter I’m vehemently against. The problem w/ phrasal cliches is that they screw up the purpose of good writing, which is to make the reader visualize the action. Cliches are so tired and dead that they basically function as a blank spot on the page. The reader just skips over them and visualizes nothing. Or gets irritated by their presence, which I doubt is the intention of the author.

    But, sometimes, a wonderfully fresh image just explodes in the reader’s mind. Chandler was a master, like at the beginning of *Farewell, My Lovely:* "He was about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." Tell me that image didn’t burst in your head in all its glory. Cliches just don’t.

    Here’s two other categories of cliched writing: scenic descriptions that emphasize the same elements that are always emphasized (the seedy theater always has the sticky floor, the fat police chief always has a lunch stain on his tie, etc.), and interior monologue where the thinker thinks the same tired thoughts everyone always thinks in such cases (cops are human, too; that woman is dangerous, but I just can’ t help myself).

    I DO think phrasal, description and interior monologue cliches are lazy writing. And they make for lazy, disengaged reading, which is the real problem. I’m sure I’m guilty of them myself, but still, so much of my writing energy goes into getting rid of them. I’m pretty certain this is exactly why I’m such a deliberate, SLOOOOW writer–I’ll sit at the computer for twenty minutes trying to figure out what unusual thought to give a character, what unusual element to notice in a scene, or what fresh way to describe something. One sentence. That stuff almost never "flows." It’s never "natural–" not for me, anyway.

    And, darn it–fictional characters should have better thoughts and dialogue than real people!

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  21. pari noskin taichert

    Lance,
    Are you describing me? <g>.
    Actually, that one is great for comics, isn’t it? The Iron Man kind of theme.

    Zoe,
    Wonderful points. Do you really think there are only a certain number of themes? I don’t know what I think about that. But you’re right that just about anything, when handled well, can work. I was up to 3 this morning too . . . finishing the Deaver novel.

    The cliche you mentioned, the one with the double life, isn’t one I’ve encountered in my reading a lot. So it doesn’t annoy me as much as it affects you. But that just goes to show that even what we consider "old hat" could be someone else’s "original."

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  22. pari noskin taichert

    Louise,
    I’ll make a note of that for the future . . .

    Your point about tropes is spot on. I think the lines do get blurred when we talk about cliches though and that’s part of what I wanted to explore here. Thank you for bringing it up.

    Reply
  23. pari noskin taichert

    Stephen,
    So you’ll be our totally, 110 percent original.

    Brett,
    Yep. But see Stephen’s comments for a different perspective <g>.

    Darlene,
    I’ll have to check out the Paperbag Princess because I adore when writers mess with norms or myths. And as to liking the revenge theme — there seem to be some real apologists for it here today.

    Reply
  24. pari noskin taichert

    Derek,
    Thanks for expanding and explaining two more categories in my crude taxonomy. Both are very common and many of us have probably read books/stories with them and decided the writing was ehhh but didn’t know quite why.

    So that helps.

    The Chandler example is wonderful. Another master was Donald Westlake. One of the reasons I adore his Dortmunder series so much is the originality of description AND, often, Dortmunder’s way of looking at and thinking about the world.

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  25. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Rob, Pari (and everyone else who called me on my anti-revenge rant), you guys are right, of course. Revenge is a great motivator and many a terrific story hinges upon it. What I should have said is that I only really object to it when it’s clearly been used as the shortest distance between two points. It kills me in movie sequels most, when it’s obviously been thrown in just to connect two plot points that otherwise would have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

    Prime example: LETHAL WEAPON 2. How incredibly convenient that the racist South Africans Mel Gibson has to find a reason to annihilate were responsible for the death of his wife. Ain’t it funny how life works (or doesn’t) sometimes?

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  26. Gar Anthony Haywood

    One last add re: revenge…

    One of the reasons POINT BLANK is one of my all time favorite movies is the complete LACK of revenge as a motivating factor for Lee Marvin’s ex-con Walker. His partner and wife betrayed him and set him up for a long stint in the slammer, so he’s got all the reason in the world to want revenge — but he’s not interested in revenge. All he wants is the money that’s owed him, nothing more and nothing less, and he won’t stop kicking ass until he gets it. He does just as much damage to just as many people as any pissed off killer protagonist who ever lived — and all without wanting or seeking "revenge" on anybody.

    Beautiful.

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  27. Ev

    Pari, your short story sounds fantastic! Was it written for any specific anthology or magazine?

    And re: cliches . . . I guess I think that nothing changes under the sun–but nothing’s exactly the same either. What sounds like a cliche on paper, can be fascinating–even work for us because readers can immediately identify with the familiar–if the writer creates vivid, "real" characters. And the reverse is trure too. The unique idea becomes dull when it fails to be brought to life via humans (or other sentient creatures!) we can relate to, root for, or want to see brought down . . .

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  28. Allison Brennan

    Cliche’s work in stories because we understand them. Cliche’s in phrasing don’t bother me if it’s to make a quick point–one of my biggest pet peeves is when an author, in an effort to get rid of cliched phrase, takes a paragraph to describe something that could be said with a common, understood cliche.

    Case in point: in my novella, I spent a full paragraph describing blood. How it looked, how it smelled. If I did that at every crime scene, I would have to jump through hoops trying to be different. It worked at the opening of the book because I was setting the scene and the tone of the story. Next time? The floor can be slick with spilled blood, or sticky, or have a coppery scent. I don’t need to come up with something new and different every time I describe a crime scene.

    Cliche’s in stories work when they touch on universal themes. There is nothing new under the sun. There may be new ways of looking at common, timeless stories, but there is nothing new. That’s why character matters. Like Rob and Gar are arguing about the LW2–the trope is cliched, but the character makes the story work (it worked for me.) It’s why Lee Child’s ticking clock works–you CARE. It’s why some serial killer books work–

    I, personally, also hate cliched villains. Yet I battled that in my seven deadly sins series. Fiona, the primary bad guy, was over-the-top evil. I was having a hard time with that . . . until I realized what she wanted. That for her, immortality and beauty were something to be loved and cherished, even if she had to kill everyone in her way. Fear of dying drives her, and there is no stronger primal fear than that. So yeah, she’s cliched in many ways, but I hope that her ultimate fear makes her a richer character.

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  29. toni mcgee causey

    I agree with Louise and Derek that there has to be a separation between cliché and tropes. I don’t think a writer can avoid using a trope of some kind, but they can avoid being clichéd within that trope.

    The trick is, a writer has to know the trope, grasp what’s been done, read widely enough to recognize how their own character and world are original and spin the trope off into their own unique story. If that’s done, then a few cliché phrasings won’t matter. If, however, they believe they’ve just come up with the best idea ever–say, "coming of age" and they don’t know TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or any number of classics, they’ll think just the idea of a kid facing difficult times is new, and they’ll just end up with tepid leftovers.

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  30. pari noskin taichert

    Ev,
    I just wrote the short story and haven’t figured out where to send it yet . . .

    And all I can say to your comment is, "Right on!"

    Allison,
    Yes, I ran into "warm coppery taste" in the book I just finished reading. Didn’t bother me a bit. I got the idea.

    And I’m really looking forward to reading your book. Fiona sounds like she’s going to be fascinating.

    Reply
  31. pari noskin taichert

    Toni,
    First of all, CONGRATS!!! We were so happy that the Saints won. It was a great game — clean, well played — and an even better ending.

    Re: your points
    I love what you say about reading widely to avoid the same old story — or telling it in the same way at least. That makes a lot of sense. But can anyone EVER read widely enough?

    I wonder.

    Reply
  32. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Toni is absolutely right. You go, girl.

    Tropes can’t be avoided; cliches can. Great writers bust their tails looking for ways around the latter; mediocre ones settle for them simply because they’ve always worked in the past. Why go through all the trouble of trying to reinvent the wheel when the tried-and-true will serve the necessary function?

    Reply
  33. berenmind

    J.D. said it for me. The tropes. Stereotype is the generalization of people and ideas. Cliché is the mode of language that enables the expression of those generalizations. Noir is ‘plugged full of’ clichés and stereotypes. They are devices, tropes, used for deliberate effect. The reader of genre fiction EXPECTS to encounter certain ‘types’. The criminal ‘type’ is pretty well established in Noir. If the writer finds a way to construct a DEstruction of the comfort boundary between the reader and the cliché, like that of an ‘adversarial but psychologically close bond’ between criminal and detective, stalker and victim, cop and partner, etc. I think that is fine. I don’t mind the writer using a few clichés and stereotypes to acclimate his reader to his character’s personality or level of education or in the exploration of normative relationships, or to establish the geographical or historical setting. Cliché is the language of convention, and Noir, as with any popular genre, has a close relationship with convention. I read a review somewhere where the critic wrote that the writer had linked ‘Cliché the production of dead language, with murder the production of dead people.’ (I thought that was cute <g>) There is a difference between skillful handling of tropes and just BAD writing! As J.D. said…. "It’s all in finding fresh things to do with them." Thereby avoiding a ‘loss of individual interior difference’ (Freud?)

    Don’t take the Cliché out of Noir!

    Reply
  34. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Can I just say how wonderful it is to have Gar Haywood and Derek Nikitas in the house? I feel like I just stepped into the ultimate master class in crime fiction.

    A tarantula on a slice of angel food cake? I may never eat again.

    Reply
  35. anonymous

    This is off the subject, but there are fun clichés and puns in the titles you guys pick!! I LURVE them. Like album art, the titles and book jackets of mystery, crime and thriller novels are soooooo cool…. and some of the really great Noir titles have BECOME clichés.

    Trouble Is My Business
    Avenging Angel
    Day of Judgment
    The Big Picture
    The Long Goodbye
    Road Kill
    Hard Knocks
    Fear of the Dark
    Original Sin
    Man Eater
    Killer Year
    Judgment Calls
    Accident Waiting To Happen
    Paying the Piper
    Third Strike
    Forcing Amaryllis
    The Devil’s Right Hand
    Working Stiffs
    Deadly Collection
    The Big Sleep (and The Little Sleep)
    Kiss Her Goodbye
    Whisper in the Dark
    Girls Just Wanna Have Guns
    Charmed and Dangerous
    When A Man Loves A Woman
    (Toni’s always crack me up)

    Reply
  36. pari noskin taichert

    Don’t worry, Will, we won’t take your cliches away!

    Alex,
    This sure has been a great discussion, hasn’t it? I love it when people bring so much knowledge and insight to the conversation.

    Hey, Anonymous,
    Thanks for the list. You’re right. Some of those titles are wonderful and have become classics.

    Reply
  37. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, thank you! I was so utterly, completely gobsmacked at that interception that truly turned the game around. There was screaming, and tears. It seemed surreal, by the end of the game, that we had won.

    As for reading… I’m not sure a writer can ever read enough, honestly. I feel a little desperate about that at times, because people will mention books that are classics of their genre, and I feel like an idiot, completely clueless that the thing even existed. I read voraciously–always did, even when the kids were little and I was going back to school and writing and working a full-time job. And even with that, I’m woefully under read.

    I think the key, though, is simply an awareness that there is a need to keep exploring, keep questioning. If we’re asking the questions and searching, we’re more likely to see the patterns (and, therefore, the repetitions which makes something a cliché.)

    Also, it’s that searching, reading, analyzing that we do that makes us unique as a writer–gives us a shot at standing out from the crowd of those who are okay just to get by. (It’s not a guarantee, but at least it’s a shot.) We’re not going to all read the same things at the same points in our lives, be affected the same way, have the same sort of life to apply the things we’ve learned to… and that combination helps us form our voice. If we’re satisfied reading and doing the same exact thing that five million other people do, then how far outside the box can we step, really?

    Gar, you rock… thank you. (But I do love revenge plots… they’re in all my books.)

    Anon, thank you – those were more the product of my editor and a bunch of friends who helped me brainstorm when the publisher wanted to go a different direction. We went through over 500 titles, I think. Or close to it. Those last two cracked me up, too.

    Reply
  38. JT Ellison

    Great convo – I agree that there are differences between tropes, formula and cliches, and everyone’s covered that for me already! I use them when needed, and avoid them otherwise.

    Reply
  39. anonymous

    Toni !!!! Sorry!!! When A Man Loves A WEAPON ….not a "woman" !!!!! I am a dumbass………I was singing along when I was typing…..always a bad idea!!

    (smile)

    Reply

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