Recently my book, From Here to There, received a review from a reader where the reader mostly liked the book but added a statement that piqued my interest: "Also some cliches in the plot..."
If you want to read the rest of the review, you can find it at Amazon. The part I care about for this piece is what is a cliche, how do we recognize it, and is it really a bad thing? I started with looking for a definition.
Cliche: a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
Of course, when I re-edited From Here to There for the umpteenth time, because of that review, I was looking for what might be a cliche. Since the story is about the western way of life and the mythology behind thinking there even is a 'western way of life,' cliches seem likely to be part of the story. One of its old-timer cowboys is a lover of western lore based on fiction books. He wouldn't mind being told he spoke in cliches, he'd be proud of it.
Going by the definition that I found, if life itself is full of something, then to put it into a book might seem overused. I mean heck, you've read/seen it all before, right? Perhaps though, you read it before because it's how life is.
To one reader having an older character have a heart attack would be cliched. We see heart attacks all the time in books. Except it is also real life. If we have lived in multi-generational communities, we know heart attacks happen. So one reader sees it as a cliche because they read it before. Another reader relates to it because they had a very similar experience in real life.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided most writing is full of cliches but so is life. What do we have happen that hasn't happened to millions before us? Some experiences more commonly happening than others.
When writing, I personally feel a cliche is fine. Cliches are what happens in life, and if they fit the story, I think that can be part of good writing-- reader/critic disagreement or not. Trite or space filling cliche is less fine, but then again, the mundane is part of real life. The alternative to the mundane in your book is writing a Perils of Pauline plot.
Cliched expressions are often how we talk. We hear something said in a movie, and we repeat it. Everybody repeats it. If people speak that way, should a book not? So, I don't feel a cliche is a bad thing in the right usage. I get it some readers disagree with me.
The kinds of thing that happen repeatedly in life, the mundane, I like in a story I am reading it or writing, like where the heroine polishes furniture, gossips with a girlfriend, or works in a garden right before her world goes to hell in a hand-basket. How many times has our own life reflected the lull before the storm, red sky in the morning lol Okay all cliches but are they not true sayings also?
So when I write, I am always thinking of the plot device, WWW, but between potential crises will be the enjoyment of little moments which might make my books almost as much woman's fiction as romance. Those little moments probably might seem prosaic, cliched even, but that's what life is made out of, isn't it?
The love story will be at the core of a romance. It is not, however, all that is going on. For my books, it's not all about fighting a villain or dealing with a natural catastrophe. It's not about constant action but rather real life mixed into action. I won't force a crises just to get constant action. I think the lull makes for better living and better reading at least for me.
Trying to make every story unlike every other story out there, by thinking up something that never happened before, for me, defeats what writing is all about-- which is an interesting story but one that can feel real.
In the case of my book, From Here to There, where it's about the western thinking, it's about what I have seen in my own life with ranch living, and sure it's got cliches. Take them out, and it ceases being what makes western thinking what it is.
We watched Donovan's Reef Sunday evening. Wayne movies are full of cliches like the obligatory fight scenes, the taming of the woman scene, etc. but it's what people want in his films. Well him having to spank her, in many of the plots, is definitely not what I want and think that's a forced cliche his films way overdid. No guy, hero type or not, is going to take a woman over his knee in my book or life lol. Well, in life I guess it could happen once, but not going to a second time. That said, I still enjoyed that movie as I do most of his films. They are predictable but that's what makes them fun.
I don't think cliches are bad in writing or life.
As old as the hills.
Time will tell.
A diamond in the rough.
Alls well that ends well.
The writing on the wall.
and so forth.
I had a book, Evening Star where the hero, who had grown up on a ranch, talked with colloquialisms. It was part of his persona and his brother ridiculed him for what he called cliched expressions. I personally liked his folksy-ism as I love those kinds of expressions and use them myself. In that book, it also illustrated a major difference between him and the more 'sophisticated' heroine.
To research this article though I was not only looking for cliches but articles out there telling writers the ones they must never use. The following twelve are from Writer's Digest. I added them here for those of you who love to know and follow the rules. Incidentally none of these made it into From Here to There-- and since they suggest you never personally respond to a review, as it's considered harassment, I will never know which ones the reader thought had. They better never read Evening Star ;)
1. Avoid it like the plague
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Take the tiger by the tail
4. Low hanging fruit
5. If only walls could talk
6. The pot calling the kettle black
7. Think outside the box
8. Thick as thieves
9. But at the end of the day
10. Plenty of fish in the sea
11. Every dog has its day
12. Like a kid in a candy store
Seriously-- at the end of the day is a cliche???