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Too Cliché or Not Too Cliché? - That is the Question

One of the problems of writing in any genre is that editors, publishers, and long-term readers have seen it all before. Experienced writers worry about keeping their ideas fresh and vaguely unique, while newbies often fall into the dreaded cliché trap.

But is the cliché really such a dire fictional faux pas? Parody writers make a lot of money out of clichés and stereotypes, but we wouldn’t find their work nearly as funny without the existence of clichéd material in the first place.

It was while I was reading the excellently tongue-in-cheek Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones that I really began to think about the positive side of clichés in fiction, and in fantasy in particular.

Orson Scott Card summed up a fundamental tenet of magic use in fantasy: that magic should always have a price or consequence. It’s a cliché, yes, but I don’t think many writers would ditch such a valuable principle if it will prove detrimental to the story. If you’re going to drop an established convention of your genre do it because of your plot, not because you’re trying to guess what an agent/publisher/reader will find old hat.

Moving too far from accepted standards of a genre in your quest for uniqueness could have two consequences: you could invent an entirely new (sub)genre and be famous forever as the pioneer of your brand, or you may face rejection simply because publishers don’t know what to do with you and can’t be bothered to figure it out.

A cliché can still work well if it’s properly thought out and used for a real purpose rather than being added for embellishment because every book the writer reads uses the same concept. If you know what you’re doing, do it with pride.

Have you used a cliché to good effect in your work? Or have you read a book with an old idea that’s been done really well?

---------------------------------------------Elsa Neal
Read the rest of Elsa Neal's review of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland at Visit her website for more articles to improve your writing craft. Read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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  1. Food for thought!

    (I guess that's one!)

    Here's a fun site.

  2. I have to agree that some books are just too weird in an effort to stand apart in their respective genre. I read a lot of cozy mysteries and some of the premises are just downright bizarre and hard to embrace. Like the undertaker with the pump-up air bra... just could not relate. :D


  3. I prefer the term trope for elements you see in books of the same genre.

    If the writer does a good job, the reader isn't aware it's a trope. If the writer depends solely on the trope without making it a rock solid part of the story with details, etc., then it's a cliche.

  4. Don't they say that every plot has been done before? It's how you do it that makes a difference.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Great post, Elsa!

    Clichés are great fodder for fiction - especially if you turn them on their head.

  6. Great post! Having some familiar patterns and plot elements can be a good thing for making the ones that you twist and break or reinterpret stand out all the better.

  7. I love stories that take a cliche and twist it into something new. I also love stories that play the cliche straight on but make it sound fresh anyway -- a favorite example is _Black Dogs Part One: The House of Diamond_ by Ursula Vernon_.

    I also tackle these in my own writing. Sometimes people even ask for them. The poem of mine with the most sponsors is the dual piece "Where Have All the Heroes Gone?"/"Different Gifts" about a classic heroine and hero ... who are not wanted in a world that has changed out from under them.

  8. I'm sorry to sound critical, but it's what I do best. There is an important distinction between an established convention and a cliche, and between the adjective and verb of cliche. None of that necessarily negates what you're saying here; it's just a point of information. Okay, yeah, I like to cornhole cliches when I can. Single best instance of my doing this is in my story, "Deep and Dreamless Sleep" from which I will now rudely quote a passage.
    Darrell, Stacy's brother, came to pick us up. He looks nothing like Stacy. She'd explained this to me before. She got a dollop each from the Irish and Bohemian corners of their gene pool, and he'd gotten more of the Chinese and Rosebud Sioux. I guess Stacy and I might be related; my maternal grandmother is half Sioux, but I'm not sure if she's Rosebud or Oglalla. Stacy had warned me not to mention that. Apparently there's a bit of animosity between Oglalla and Rosebud Sioux, although Stacy nor I have any idea what it's about. The key thing is that Stacy's staunchly Catholic mother would sooner see her with another woman than with an Oglalla. Still, I was more than a little surprised that she was letting us sleep together in her house. . .

    I felt [Stacy's] tears dripping down my shoulder as I fell asleep.

    In the darkness, light was rising. Snow was falling. I saw a boy pulling a sled up a hill, and he was growing older with every step. I soon recognized that he was Stacy's father. He slowed as he approached, and struggled to take the last few steps. The sled had been shrinking, becoming something smaller in his hand, which he held behind his back. He suddenly swung his arm out from behind himself, and put this thing into my hand, and curled my fingers over it, wrapping them snugly around it, and pressing them tightly on it. They hurt from the pressure he applied. He leaned toward me and said, “Rosebud.”

  9. Yo, stacy! I think you meant to say "noun" rather than "verb".

  10. The problem comes when many writers don't know they are too cliche.

  11. too busy avoiding cliches like the plague hehehh


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