Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Comfort of Cliche

Cliche is the enemy... right?

We're taught this: be original. Kill those cliches. Find a new way to do it, a new way to say it. Do something different and unique and you'll break into the market, or so we're told.

Except what if the market ain't quite what we're told it is? Because I look around and, well, cliche sells. There's that old saying "we want the same, but different." And yet, looking around, there's a lot of stories that seem to be much more "the same" than they are "different".

People lined up to buy Christopher Paolini's books. How might we explain this? Yes, much of his readership is quite young, and so these readers simply might not have been exposed to the preceding stories yet, and thus remain unaware of the fact that the stories are highly derivative. But many experienced readers snap up his books, too. Are they unaware? A few, perhaps, but on a mass scale? It seems unlikely.

The conclusion I come to is that a portion (a surprisingly large portion) of the market wants it. They want the cliche. Cliches are familiar and comfortable. You know what you're gonna get. A boy, a dragon, a quest, a battle of good against evil (and maybe a pretty girl thrown in for good measure). Great literature? No. But people seem to want it.

I think a lot of readers want a certain experience. They've had it before, and now they want it back. Simply rereading the old story won't quite do it... so they want something mostly the same, but slightly different. Just different enough so that it's not identical... but same enough that they know what they're gonna get. A situation: a documentary that looks really interesting is on at 8 o'clock... at the same time as your favourite sitcom, the one you watch every week. How many people, do you think, will choose the sitcom? It probably won't offer anything new, anything challenging or life changing. But you know what you're gonna get. A couple chuckles, some familiar faces. You know, what if the documentary is boring? Am I going to miss Favourite Sitcom just for that?

This is the triumph of the common and familiar. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush...

There's a lot of cheesy romantic comedies out there (I watched one last night). Why are they continually in demand? I think they evoke a particular feeling, a particular experience, and so people will watch irregardless of stock characters and obvious plot devices.

An original story, a unique story, is challenging. It demands something of the reader. You have to experience something new and come to grips with it, interpret it and then assimilate it into your own understanding. It takes work, and though this is, I think, the work of art, it isn't always what people want.

Perhaps there's a nostalgic element to cliche. This use of cliche is connected to this other use of cliche, which is connected to this earlier one... and so and so on. It's a way to tie personal experiences together into an inter-connected history. Perhaps these cliches are appreciated not simply for what they are, but rather as symbols for a summation of similar experiences. They are mental triggers waiting to be pulled.

Now, maybe it's not just any old cliche that works... or maybe it's simply that cliche can be handled well or poorly, much like any other writing technique. Do it shabbily and people will drop the story in a heartbeat (oh yes, those cliches...). Do it well and the cliches offer comfort, a pleasing frame of reference. Do it the same, but different. Maybe that's wrong, though. Maybe for many writers it's Do it the same... but do it well.

I can't say it's for me. I think I need newness. If it's not new, what is there to explore? To find and discover? Without that, for me, I think the stories would come out stillborn. But I do think it might be interesting to look a little closer at the market, and to really see what it is many readers want. We might be surprised...

So what about you? What's your relationship with cliche?


Heidi C. Vlach said...

"Do it the same, but do it well" sounds about right. I've always maintained that anything and everything can be good if it's executed well enough. That includes gag-inducingly stale cliches. A skilled enough author can breathe life into them: it's just unlikely, that's all.

Personally, though, I loathe cliche. I have nothing but contempt for the usual quest where a farmboy discovers he's a powerful heir and treks off with an elf and a dwarf to stop the dark lord. Why would any creative, self-respecting author would be satisfied with ideas that have been rehashed a million times before?

But I know I'm a minority, there. And a little bit of the same-old-same-old can ease people into newer, weirder concepts. I guess as long as people see, for example, Paolini's books as entertaining fluff instead of literary genius, there's no real harm in cliche.

Also, hi. I'm stalking your blog now!

Ink said...

Hey, we like stalkers! They're so loyal...

I'm with you on the farmboy (must be orphaned, remember...) off to fight the Dark Lord. Though sometimes it's fun to twist such expectations. Sort of like the head of that girl in the Exorcist. :)

Merry Christmas!

Ms Kitty said...

There are clichés, and there are badly done clichés. Thinking about it, there are clichés for genre, plot, characters, dialog and settings.

Some genre's get bogged down in them, as in fantasy and the 'Heir-to-the-throne' or "Great Destiny" has been done to death. At its worst its King Arthur via Disney, dumped into LotR. But there are good ones out there, even now.

Then there are plot clichés "Boy-meets-girl, boy falls in love with girl." etc (insert any romance title here). Then there is Romeo and Juliet, a timeless tale that became West Side Story. Both great stories and nobody minds the clichéd plots.

Genres in general aren't bad, but the sub-genres can be simply awful clichés, replayed endlessly. Digging deeply into background and characterization, painting with broad strokes can make a cliché forgivable. The difference IMO, is the writer's touch. There are no new stories, just different ways of telling the old ones.

Bookworm1605 said...

Ah, cliches...where would we be without them?

Cliches are one of the first things new writers get slapped in the face with when they post their work for critique. I well remember my first posting at FM, specifically the neatly bolded and inserted 'CLICHE!' every three or four paragraphs. What's wrong with having your hulking monster barrel like a freight train? And what if you happen to have something in your story that actually is as heavy as a ton of bricks? What is a fellow to do?

I recently read an article in a writing mag about the hundred most cliched phrases and was a bit appalled at some of the stuff that was in there--sayings near and dear to my heart. But, oh well, I try to watch them when I can.

I take it though you are referring more to the bigger picture, the story cliches. I have to admit that in fantasy in particular, I do find cliches very frustrating. I get tired of reading about the 'chosen one' or as you guys have been saying, the orphaned heir apparent stories. Waaaaaay overdone. I suppose every genre has them. Probably in some, like romance, they are expected and even necessary. If you read the submission requirements for magazines they'll often list stuff they specifically don't want to see, and more likely than not, they are talking about cliches.

But as for myself, I have mixed feelings about cliched stories. I wonder if, in this world of rapid and violent change, we aren't soothed by time-tested plots--kinda like comfort food. ERB made millions with thirtysomething Tarzan books that were virtually identical in plot. How often do we go back to the movies to see remake after remake of classics, or sometimes, not so classics. Hollywood has proven time and again that the right formula can work over and over and over and over...well, you get my point.

Why? It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, and that applies to plots. All stories when broken down into their fundamental building blocks, are about character and conflict. It's natural then that particularly resonant combinations would be repeated again and again, kinda like the city of Amber casting infinite shadows. But the fact that many stories share DNA doesn't give writers a blank check to be lazy and boring. That's where the trouble comes in. I like to write stories that have been told before but with my own Weird Menace spin.

Wanu said...

It is interesting, that on the one hand, most writers and teachy type writers say avoid cliche, and yet on the other, there is a great deal of literature about the area of identifying, and working with, archetypal characters - about a dozen widely recognised character types, used (incredibly) extensively in storytelling.

I think the heart of the issue lies simply in freshness. It's okay, for example, to use Gandalf if you call him ObiWan Kenobi and put him on a space ship.

I think the 'problem' area with cliche is not so much your characters using cliches in speech, but your narrator using them to tell the tale. I don't know if you've noticed this, but some stories carry a very fresh feeling, the prose can carry nicely along, just side-stepping expectation here and there, always seeming new. I think that is a very advanced way of writing, and very effective, but something you cannot achieve if your narrator falls back to tried and tested phrasiology. I think the prose can seem 'familiar' or 'predictable' to a reader, even if only on a sub or nearly subconscious level.

Whereas, like aforementioned, it is difficult to produce a work of fiction which is truly unique (and perhaps if you did, it might not be so popular. For example, a story with all nasty characters, with the paragraphs in random order, and no overall story arc, might be original, but!)

So with archetype characters, and 'boy meets girl' or 'fated hero' plotlines, I think there is perhaps a danger of simply rehashing, but there is also the oportunity to advance the idea, or give it a new twist.

I've only read one Harry Potter book, and seen all the movies, and there'a an awful lot of, shall we say, tried 'n' tested stuff in there - giant spiders, phoenix, wizards, giants... I read the Witches books when I was a boy, about a witch school, and Harry Potter seemed trite to me, like I'd seen it all before. However, those big, surprise endings brought a level of delight and satisfaction to all these ancient institutions, and maybe there's a big 'click' when you can take things which people have enjoyed for years, and present them with a bunch of new elements, especially big, surprising elements.

That might be one of the big keys to making 'cliche' work.

Ms Kitty said...

Heidi: "Gag-inducingly stale cliches." I love that!

I submit the theory (or should that be propose the theory?) that cliched phrases are the enemy.

Dialog cliches are like rubber stamps on watercolor paintings.

There are black and white photos of trees, then there is Ansel Adams' black and white photos of trees.

There are landscapes paintings everywhere, then there are Remington's landscapes.

ERB did turn out (churn out?) Tarzan as his bread and butter. But while his Martian series was much better, it didn't pay the bills. But it is still a pretty good read for sci-fi of that era.

The man needed to make a living, so he turned out Tarzan. John Carter of Mars was much more imaginative in many ways. Even at age 10, I could feel the difference.

We can say that Doyle, Howard and ErB were all hacks. However, their work is reflected in all the genre fiction that followed: detective, Sword and Sorcery and lost world adventure/alternate world books.

In many ways, they created the cliches, we have all climbed on the bandwagon.

spinregina said...

I am a walking cliche. As I write what I know, what I write is often cliche.

I admire literary novels, I admire all sorts of things that I don't necessarily do, but my personal take on it is that if done well, cliche can be just fine.

I haven't written enough to have a knowledgeable take on this, but the only thing I can link this to in my own experience is that all of life is really an imitation. I know, that sounds so trite, but whether the inspiration comes from nature, literature, visual art, ... , it's coming from somewhere. It's what we do with it that makes it personal. When we talk about life, basically it's all a lot of person meets person, falls in love/out of love, and a lot in between. That sort of thing. And that's okay.

This could be much more thought out and a better response but I happened here on the fly and must attend to groceries and Life.

Ink said...

Hey spinregina! A fellow Bran Fan...

Yeah, I agree with what you're saying. Inspiration comes from something, from anything... it comes from keeping your eyes and ears open and absorbing the world around you. One of my other recent posts was about this, about how writers should be greedy for the details of the world and for other stories. That's where our own stories will come from.

Gingerlywrites said...

Hi Ink,
Some folks don't like buying a pig in a poke. They're brand conscious. Same old, same old.

Readers of that stuff couldn't pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the bottom at least in a literary sense.

Plus, the authors should have marks all over their body where folks keep poking 'em with a ten-foot pole. Clichés are annoying, unless their funny or you can sell 'em. For money. Then I say, just do it.

Way cool article. Great looking blog. But, I must put in my 2 cents: Please, for cripes sake...the word is regardless not irregardless. Ain't no such of a word.

How'd I get here? I musta clicked on something at FM. I'm as lost as last year's Easter egg.

You da bomb! The best! The beast with two backs, er, oops, wrong blog.

Ink said...

Hey Ginger, that made me chuckle... And it's midnight and I just spent two hours driving on winter roads, so a chuckle is a good thing. :)

And irregardless is a word! Seriously, I ain't joking. Though it's considered inelegant. For some reason I always seem to want to use it in first drafts... and end up editing it out in revision. Regardless is almost always better... but for some reason I'm always drawn to "irregardless". I'm full of odd quirks, though. I learned the word onyx when I was a kid, and for some reason I pronounced it "Oinks" rather than "Oniks" - and even now I still think of piggies whenever I see that word. :)

Anonymous said...

My old crochety Lit teacher at University practically put me in a head-lock and screamed "Irregardless is NOT a word!" After I used it in a sentence. Now I know for sure! Ink said so. Take that Mrs. can't remember your name lit teacher!

Ink said...

A slap in the face for all crotchety Lit teachers! I have struck a blow for humanity. Where's my parade?