Weekly Writing Memo: To Cliche, or not to Cliche

Weekly Writing MemoA writing friend and I got in a heated discussion the other day as to whether clichés in writing can ever be a good thing. He is an adamant believer that clichés should be actively hunted down and eliminated from all dialogue, as well as most other areas of writing when possible. I, on the other hand, have a more lenient approach. I think clichés can be useful in specific circumstances, and sometimes they’re the best choice for the job. So when are clichés a good thing?

Avoiding Awkward

Sometimes if you can’t find a simple way to reword or rework a scene to avoid the cliché, then you can end up making the writing convoluted and awkward, which is worse than just using the cliché. A cliché can be invisible in the story and the audience may not even notice it, but awkward writing will interrupt the flow and stand out to an audience. It can also become obvious that you’re trying to avoid the cliché, and that can be distracting as well.

A really easy example is the phrase “that’s classified.” If you wanted to you could avoid it in a lot of ways, but there has to be a limit to how far you’ll go to avoid a cliché, and how much space you want to use to do so. If you try to avoid “that’s classified,” you could end up with something convoluted like, “I can’t tell you that because you are not qualified to access that information.” Just reading it makes me roll my eyes because it’s incredibly obvious I’m avoiding the cliché. In fact, it reads like a convoluted way of saying “that’s above your pay grade.” Which is another cliché.

The point is, avoiding the cliché in this case is turning out awkward, and it’s becoming obvious to the audience that it is what I’m doing. You don’t want your audience to stop and think about the writing when they’re enjoying the story – unless they stop to go “DAMN, that was good!” That is always acceptable! You want the audience involved, and in a situation like this it’s easier to throw in the cliché to get the message across and keep the story moving, rather than finding some roundabout way to avoid it.

Simplicity

Sometimes the decision for me to use the cliché comes down to one thing – simplicity. Sure, there are a lot of ways to word things that may let me avoid a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the easiest, clearest way to get whatever message I want across to the audience. If I can use a cliché and it only takes 2 words instead of 20, then I better have some big motivation as to why those 20 words are needed. I’m a firm believer that every word has to count in a story, and as I said above, sometimes the cliché is just the simplest way to go. Will there be better ways to say things, probably, but does that mean you need to change your wording? No.

Cliches aren’t inherently bad. They can be overused, and they can be used at bad times, but sometimes they’re the best way to go for the sake of keeping the story moving forward. So always consider how complicated the route to avoid the cliché is. Ask yourself, if I avoid this cliché, will I slow the story down? Will it waste space on the page? Does the cliché add or take away anything from the scene? If the answers to these don’t give you a reason to take out the cliché, then I say go with the simplest method of keeping it in.

Character Culture

The biggest argument I think there is for keeping a cliché is that in some character cultures, clichés are ingrained in the system. By character cultures I mean communities like police officers, military personnel, doctors, politicians, etc. These kind of cultures that are part of large organizations have certain things that are ingrained in them.

For example, cliché language is often used by the higher ups in these organizations because clichés are something that a huge group of people will all understand in the same way. Clichés also become ingrained in these organizations because they relay on training being passed down, and the clichés carry through. For example, police officers and military personnel are more likely to use phrases that they have been trained to use. Military men use things like “need to know” because it’s an easy way for higher ups to dismiss lower level employees without actually giving them any information, and those lower level employees generally have to listen because they don’t outrank anyone.

In these sorts of settings, clichés can be used by the higher ups as a very easy way to create a separation between those of different ranks. Think of all the cliché phrases you can for military and even police personnel and think of their purpose: Need to know, that’s classified, that’s above your pay grade, etc. They all serve to protect information, and to put someone lower down in their place. In politics, there is a similar thing going on. The cliché phrases are more about delivering a message without delivering specifics. They say “I will bring change” or “I have the experience to do [blah]” and so on without every really specific what their plan is or how they are qualified.

Similarly, in medical fields clichés exist to keep information vague or to deliver a clear message without getting into specifics. In medical fields you sometimes don’t have time to lay out all the information because of the life and death situation, so abbreviated phrases are used to get a message across to everyone in the room quickly.

In general, these kids of systemized or structural cultures have clichés ingrained in them because they help create structure, they are universally understood, they deliver information and meaning without specifics as needed, and these cultures often have similar situations happen over and over again which can lead to certain sequences of events becoming cliché. The point is, you don’t need these characters to use clichés all the time, but having them in these instances is more acceptable because the clichés are part of the culture and the training almost everyone goes through in these professions, so they are almost expected by an audience.

When to Cut the Cliché?

Now clearly clichés should be cut whenever you can cut them in a way that doesn’t involve the things I’ve mentioned above, but sometimes it can be hard to decide. If there is an easy way to avoid the cliché, then always use it. If the cliché makes the scene cheesy or eye-roll worthy, then definitely cut it. If your entire plot hinges on a cliché, again, think about changing it. The important thing is that the clichés you do use don’t interrupt the flow or come off as lazy. Use them because they’re the best tool for the job (cliché!), and use them because they serve the story. Don’t use them because you’re too lazy to think of something else.

If you aren’t sure, then get a second opinion and see if your beta reader finds it distracting. Ultimately, like anything else in writing it all depends on the specific situation. Clichés exist for a reason, just use them wisely!

 

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