Oh, My, God, Cliches!

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Shut up. Shut up already! I hate cliches as much as the next guy, but the difference between me and the next guy is that I’m better equipped at identifying them. I think a lot of people don’t know what a cliche is and start labelling things cliche that are not. I think maybe film has something to do with this. Recycled plot arcs, the hero’s journey, the girl meets boy etc. narrative of the rom-com, they’re things we grow up with, they’re things that go through the wash and come out a slightly different colour but they still do the same thing. We see them and recognise them and think, oh for the love of god, the boy and the girl get back together at the end? How cliche…

When it comes to books, there’s so much more going on. What makes the hero’s journey cliche in a book is not the narrative arc, it’s the generic prose, it may have an archaic tinge to it, that formal third person epic quest narrator that tells us the same story over and over. Cliches aren’t in the story, but how we tell them, how we string our words together. It is cliche to start a story with “once upon a time” or “it was a dark and stormy night”. Where these were once unique, they have now been done to death. Same with emotional eyes in poetry. Or the ocean. So many poets describing so many eyes and emotions, it becomes boring and repetetive. You might as well leave it blank and say “insert generic eye metaphor #307”.

For crying out loud! When will that goddamned prince come save me from this abomination of literary proportions!?

In the literary world, what some people may call a cliche is probably just a trope. A trope is a device you can use, which your readers are already well aware of. For instance, the hero’s journey is a trope because it a familiar narrative arc where the plot follows a familiar pattern. It is to be expected. Writing it in a bland, stereotypical, or well-exhausted way makes it cliche. You’ve probably heard the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. If you read a trope and you’re thinking cliches, there’s probably a cliche somewhere in there. On the other note, a capable write will be able to write a story following a hero’s journey narrative arc, or employ other such plot arcs or tropes without coming off as cliched. If you do it well, people may not be able to tell that tropes are present until they probe a bit closer. You could even call attention to the trope or cliche to subvert its meaning, which I think is a trope of its own, called “lampshade hanging”. You see it often enough in films where something happens that seems like a plot hole until a character from within the narrative calls attention to it, before carrying on like nothing happened.

So now that we know that cliches are more a by-product of bad prose than a bad story, we can move on to beating the cliche. This is the easy part. Once you step back and have a look at your writing and figure out it lacks character and intrigue, you just need to have another crack at it. Get those creative juices flowing. Aim to write a story that no one else can write. Each narrator you create will have their own voice, and while they may just be average joes, nobodies thrust into the chaos of your story, the only person that thinks like your character is your character. The only person that thinks like you is you. From your word choice to your phrasing to your punctuation, it all needs to be framed around a narrator who thinks like a real person, existing outside of stereotypes and bland, repetitive writing.

Even in "The Road", while the setting is bland and uninteresting, the prose is anything but.

Now, I’d hate to sound like I’m endorsing realism over other genres here, so I think it’s necessary to point out the distinction between a realistic narrator and a realistic narrative. While a realistic narrative sounds like it could happen, a realistic narrator can be as reliable or unreliable as they choose, as you choose. The narrator thinks and acts and says how people think, act and speak. They can exist in whatever world they please, but in the telling of their story, there will be things they will choose to omit and things they will choose to include, and the things they include, they will describe in a way that is particular to their character.  If the character doesn’t care, why should the reader? If the character is merely a vessel for the author to tell the story, that’s no good either. We need the narrator to draw us in, to provide us with details, with senses and feelings and thoughts that feel as though they were real even if the narrator were living in a world of fairy floss. The narrator needs to transport us to their world the way that only they can. Details that no one else has described before. Thoughts and ideas that feel human but are somehow different, unique to the narrator. You can be anybody, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. It doesn’t have to be a real time, place or person, but you need to be able to take us there, make it real, kill the cliche where it stands, and erect a flag that states that your literary world is the only one of its kind, and that you have taken the time and effort to ensure that this is the truth.

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19 thoughts on “Oh, My, God, Cliches!

  1. Hey buddy, I’m loving the new blog! Layout is unique and attractive, simple and clear. Pretty obviously has a strong critical voice of lit, will it be this blogs focus or will you be posting examples of your writing on this guy, or simply leave that up to Billy Demonseed and APUNKALYPSE?

    Is this the blog that you have had contact from published authors on? You’re obviously doing something right! If this is your main node, are you more interested in it being a profile of S.T. as an author, or a promotion tool? What kind of strategies are you enacting, if any?

    As an aside, you might have an interest in this blog about masculinities. It’s not too active this year but some of the older posts are great. I love it just because it’s talking about masculinity! It’s a direction I’d like to take a blog, probably not dustbowl because that’s already kind of grounded in narrative. Think I’ll get it running after this assign. Well chin chin! Good luck.

  2. I may end up posting the occasional flash fiction piece or poem on here, but it’s going to be targeted more towards talking about writing and book reviews and such, whereas my other blogs exist as stand-alone creative pieces.
    Yeah, a couple of small press authors have commented on or about my blog, getting here through facebook or goodreads, which is really awesome, as I feel like I’m finding my place in the bizarro community. Some of the books I plan on reviewing are by small press authors, so I guess one of my main goals here is to promote their work as well as my own. Of course, it’s a promotional thing, and part of that is establishing who I am as a writer.
    I’m currently playing around with the idea of publishing a poetry ebook for my final assignment, so I’ll probably talk about that a bit on here too, maybe run a giveaway if/when it’s out.
    That looks like an interesting blog. I think masculinity is a topic that’s not talked about nearly enough as it should be. Trying to talk to people about Fight Club, for instance, in the way it renegotiates patriarchal masculinity is just frustrating because a lot of people don’t look under the surface. Maybe because they feel it’s not the sort of thing men should be doing.

  3. “What makes the hero’s journey cliche in a book is not the narrative arc, it’s the generic prose…”

    The Hero’s Journey and the style of prose used have nothing to do with each other. The Hero’s Journey is a story structure. It doesn’t have to involve a muscular guy with a sword who is on a quest. And I’m probably wrong, but when I think of tropes, I think of things that are more specific while The Hero’s Journey is very general. Or perhaps consisting of many specific things to create something large.

    And damn, I hated The Road. I agree about the great writing, but the content was just so boring. It could have been improved with The Hero’s Journey. Although the run-on sentences that Mcarthy’s lack of punctuation create annoy the hell out of me, but I just hate the word “and.”

  4. Yeah, I think I probably could have worded it better. You’re right, the Hero’s Journey and the style of prose are mutually exclusive. I think it may be easier to identify the Hero’s Journey when it’s more on the cliched side of things, or when it’s more in line with the whole medieval sword and sorcery thing. Of course, I feel it works best when it’s not so easily identifiable, which I think comes down to the author drawing the reader into their own fictional world.

    As for the Road, I think it’s definitely one of those books you either love it or you hate it. I love it because I love things weird and rambling and I’m cool with run-on sentences and stream-of-consciousness provided that the author knows what they’re doing. Kind of how I struggle with lengthy epic fantasy novels, even though there’s nothing wrong with the writing, and they know what they’re doing, I just can’t get into it that easily. I understand why people hate the Road, but to me, all those grammar-nazi issues in McCarthy’s writing are what makes his writing stand out. I started reading All the Pretty Horses the other day, and it’s much the same style and I’m finding it really easy to get into, and I’d say it’s because when I read his stuff, I can see that he knows what he’s doing, he’s not just some amateur who has yet to grasp the nuances of the English language.

  5. Nearly all of Hollywood’s successful movies use the Hero’s Journey and I don’t think it’s easily identifiable unless you’re really familiar with it, in which case it’s REALLY easy to identify. It’s become a Hollywood convention. Some examples of movies that use it include Star Wars (which was the first movie that used it intentionally), The Matrix, and Avatar. Many stories and movies have used the plot structure unintentionally over the years. It’s a “universal” thing. Most likely because the storytellers were influenced by the stories that came before that used the structure, although there may be more to the reason for its use than that. It could have something to do with human psychology. I’ve read Joseph Campbell and I think what he was getting at was cultures that had no contact with one another with all using the structure in their myths. And it would pop up over and over again. I wrote my critical thesis on it.

    An example of a movie that used the structure unintentionally is The Wizard of Oz, while the original book did not use the structure. I think the screenwriter or writers changed the plot because they understood what makes a more engaging plot than the book’s original author. Plus it’s not as essential to use it in novels as movies. Because if the writing is good enough, it makes up for weaknesses in plot. Like how you seemed to feel about The Road. And how I feel about many other books that aren’t The Road. Having a strong plot is just a lot more important in film than novels. Because movies can’t hide behind wonderful prose. And that’s why there seem to be no good books on writing prose fiction that concern plot structure and there are a lot of good books on plot structure for screenwriters. Although I feel the best novels focus equally on plot as well as prose style.

    I liked No Country for Old Men a lot once I got used to the run-ons. I like that he doesn’t use quotations to identify dialogue because his dialogue is so good that I would always know within a word or two after the beginning of a sentence that it was dialogue and that was really cool. I think his greatest talent is writing dialogue. My problem with The Road is there is very little variation to the plot. It’s mostly a “straight line” rather than consisting of highs and lows. It probably would have made a great short story, but an entire novel where barely anything changes is pushing it.

    I’m unable to get into epic fantasy books because I hate the writing style that is used. Over the years, various friends of mine recommended George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. I tried to read the first book but didn’t get far. But I’ve watched the first two episodes of HBO’s TV series adaptation and really enjoyed them, so I’m looking forward to watching future episodes. I think I’m capable of liking epic fantasy stories just as long as I don’t have to read them.

  6. That’s cool. I haven’t read Campbell yet, but I’ll probably look into it in the near future. I think for me, what it comes down to is suspension of disbelief. That’s a topic I’ll probably talk about in a more broader context on here at a later date, but for now, you only really get a problem with films when they abandon story for style. I think unless a film is really experimental, it really needs a strong story to suspend disbelief, to call attention away from the fact that you’re watching a film involving characters playing out the hero’s journey. Just looking at the big hollywood action blockbusters that are composed primarily around massive explosions and epic battles, and the ones that fail are the films that make the story fit around the action and special effects (see Transformers) where films that get the story down and work all that stuff around it tend to do a lot better (probably my favourite in recent years would be Watchmen).

    Keeping on films, I completely agree with the balance of story and style. I watched the Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the first time last weekend and started watching Inglourious Basterds for what must be the fourth or fifth time, and one thing I loved about both films were their opening scenes. In the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the “Bad” character comes into a stranger’s house and sits down and starts eating with him and talking about a man he’s been hired to hunt down, and the tension that builds up in that scene, just sitting down and talking, builds up to a shoot out. Basterds is pretty much the same, but with more time given to language play and tension build up. It’s stylish, yet it’s a clever way of introducing main characters and establishing what’s going on through story. The other characters in the scene are never seen or heard of again, they’re essentially devices for establishing those one or two main characters, but while they may seem disposable, in those opening scenes, they feel as real and as important as the main characters in the films. The writers/directors take the time to set the scene, create the characters, establish their style and kickstart the story, all in that one space. To me, that’s far more exciting than any epic war or massive explosion.

    I’m glad you brought up McCarthy’s dialogue, because I can not stress enough how much I love the dialogue in The Road. I felt like I really got to know the man and the boy, as bleak as they are, through their dialogue. I’m feeling much the same way with All The Pretty Horses, but it doesn’t have that urgency and danger to it that The Road has. I think because barely anything changes throughout the book, we don’t have anything that’s easily relatable. It doesn’t have an evil to overcome, it just has endurance. So I guess you could say it’s more true to life in that aspect, and that it’s more about exposing the plight of the human condition, as lofty as that sounds, but it doesn’t have anything substantial to hold on to that we expect to find in a story. At least for a story about nothing much, there’s a lot to talk about.

  7. I hated Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Too dry for me. The Power of Myth was pretty decent. It’s a book of interviews with him and a companion to a PBS series about him. There’s also a book called “The Writer’s Journey,” which started the whole “convention in Hollywood” thing. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s like the Hero’s Journey for Dummies. It made me feel like I was being talked down to while reading it, as if the author thought his readers were idiots. It’s way too long. Way too much filler. But the good stuff is really good. It could have been a great book if the author hadn’t made it longer than necessary.

    My favorite movie is Once Upon a Time in America, which was directed by the same guy as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I love Tarantino’s movies, particularly thing dialogue. Like Death Proof for instance. I really enjoyed the dialogue, even though it wasn’t that related to the plot. And even though not much happened, when things happened they REALLY happened. You know?

    Have you seen the film adaptation of The Road? Any good? I liked that Viggo guy in Cronenberg’s last couple of movies.

  8. I’m pretty sure I’ve read excerpts from the Hero with a Thousand Faces, or at least talked about it in class at uni. I feel the more I study writing and analysing texts, the more I start to automatically pick things out in books and films. It ruins the process for some people, but I like thinking about the creative processes going on behind the scenes, to get a better picture of how something was pieced together, and possibly what that means. Since I studied Fight Club with relation to gender studies, I’ll never think the same way about masculinity again. I could talk for ages and ages on the subject, but I think this will probably be the topic of another blog discussion in the near future.

    Some of my favourite films are adaptations of books, Fight Club, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I’d probably put the Road up there. But then again, I haven’t really seen a wide range of films, and certainly most of them have been the popular/mainstream films that came out in the ’90s/2000s, and even then I’ve skipped over some pretty common titles. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was my first delve into the Western genre in its traditional sense, and I’m keen on watching more of Sergio Leone’s work. Him and Peckinpah are the two I’m most keen on checking out.

    I’ve become a real Tarantino fan over the past couple of years, although I’m yet to see Death Proof and Jackie Brown. I love the tension and dialogue in his films. Inglourious Basterds is one of my favourite films because of the way different languages/accents are handled throughout the film. Even Kill Bill, which I wasn’t a huge fan of until I rewatched it recently, there’s that scene in the second film where the Bride meets Bill and her daughter, and for a while there, it’s like watching a completely different film. Scene by scene, he changes pace so well. And yeah, as you say, when things really get going, there’s no holding back.

    The film version of the Road, it feels like a fairly accurate adaptation of the book, but you may like it more as a lot of passages in the book are taken word for word and turned into voiceover speech, and that really emphasises and vocalises the poetics of McCarthy’s writing. It’s bleak and miserable, and it pivots around a few key events as does the book, but I guess seeing them on a screen, it really brings out the tension and emotion of the man and the boy, which would be easier to buy into in film than in book form. I really liked the film, but then again, I’ve come across people who absolutely hated it. When the story changes pace, at least it’s right in there, and not buried in poetic prose. If you’re interested, I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch.

  9. Yeah, knowing plot structure ruins everything and you’re nearly always able to predict what happens next. Although as a writer, it can be helpful to know the structure and subvert it so the reader will never expect what happens. But there’s also a danger in doing that considering it can cause the reader to experience dissatisfaction. Some famous writer said something like “You should give the audience exactly what they want in a way that they want never expect it.”

    Sergio Leon’s movies are a lot different than American westerns, more so than being filmed in Italy. Once Upon a Time in America is a Jewish gangster movie with Robert De Niro and James Woods. It’s 3 or 4 hours long. Peckinpah was influenced by Leon. My favorite movie by him is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

    The idea of voiceover in the movie of The Road sounds really horrible.

  10. There seems to be no surprises with the shelves and shelves of paranormal young adult fiction out at the moment, so I guess they’re pretty much giving their readers exactly what they want. It’s a fine line, if you do something expected, it can feel cheap and predictable, and doing something unexpected can feel too out of place and difficult to accept. So at the same time, you’ve got to not treat them like idiots and not treat them like mega-geniuses. It’s these sorts of decisions I think it’s impossible to draw the line that works for everybody. It’s something that you’ve got to figure out on your own, which is hard, considering you need someone to bounce your ideas off to get your desired effect.

    Even though I haven’t seen the traditional Westerns, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly did feel different to my presumption of what a Western should be. I mean, there’s the whole gunslingers and outlaws aspect to the film, but there seems to be a particular narrative arc associated with the Westerns that didn’t directly apply to the film. It’s adhering to some generic conventions, but not others.

    I know, the voiceover sounds like it could have gone horribly wrong, but Viggo Mortensen’s voice suits the part and it’s not overdone. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, so it’s not exactly crisp in my memory, but for some reason, it just works. Well, it did for me at least.

  11. I didn’t realize until it hit me recently that Paranormal Romance referred to romance books with vampires (like Twilight). Before that, I thought it was about teenage girls or women falling for ghosts. It seemed like a really obscure term the first time I heard it like a decade ago. I used to have a friend whose friend was in charge of the Paranormal Romance division of Tor Books. I think the first time I heard the term was from him. I guess the show, True Blood, is a paranormal romance. I kind of hate the show, but I keep watching it for some lame reason.

    I think I only like voice-over in noir and neo-noir movies, although it occasionally works in random movies. Seems lame to use it in movies adapted from books and quote directly from the book, unless it’s a noir/crime movie.

  12. Another voiceover I’m quite fond of is Rorschach’s journals in Watchmen, but I guess the style that’s done there would be neo-noir.

    I don’t really have much of an opinion on paranormal romance, as, to me it feels like a largely disposable genre in that it doesn’t seem to be offering anything new or different to the literary world other than being the hot new fad. I don’t read it, I don’t write it, there’s a market for it, but that market’s just not me.

  13. Oh yeah, Watchman. Forgot to comment on that. It was ok. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t already read the comic and didn’t have a grudge against the director for doing 300. His remake of Dawn of the Dead was surprisingly good though. I saw it at a dollar theater with the intention to kill a few hours and with low expectations. But I guess it helped that it was written by the guy who wrote Tromeo and Juliet and the Scooby-Doo movies.

  14. I didn’t read the graphic novel until earlier this year. The film is a hollywood blockbuster, and it’s got all the bells and whistles and all that, but at the core there’s the strong emphasis on non-linear narrative and moral ambiguity, and I think they’re the key features that define the comic book. 300 was just pure no-holds-barred action and flashy special effects. I haven’t seen Snyder’s new film, Sucker Punch, but from what I gather, it’s more action and shit, plus some eye candy for the blokes. With Watchmen, they already had a great story, all they had to do was not butcher it completely and it’d turn out ok. I wasn’t expecting anything overly amazing, so I quite enjoyed the moral ambiguity and the plot intricacies that most superhero films just skim over. Maybe I’m just easily pleased.

  15. I read Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange before I watched the films. I really enjoy the films, but I think their literary counterparts are just that bit better. And I think it sometimes works fine the other way around, as I’ve done with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the Beach, but I think what it comes down to is not so much which one is better, how well they adapt, but also how well they work in their separate forms. If I hadn’t seen the Lord of the Rings films before I really got into the books I might have finished the series (or at least the first book). A lot of films nowdays seem to focus heavily on book-to-film adaptations, and it’s got me wondering if people can be bothered coming up with original screenplays that aren’t your run of the mill comedies any more, and if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

  16. Yeah, it’s like Hollywood is out of ideas. Or they already have a built in audience if it’s a popular comic or book. Or with remakes of foreign films, they don’t want to release the original movie because it’s just too “foreign” for Americans, but they might as well remake it if it was a hit in its native country. It’s like having a series of test screenings on a massive scale. Although remakes of foreign films usually suck for some reason.

    Anyway, the joy of watching a story unfold or reading it is always going to be ruined to a certain extent if you already know everything that happens. I read Fight Club after I saw the movie and I wasn’t crazy about the book because of it. I also read A Clockwork Orange after and enjoyed it. Probably because of the fun language.

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