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Books, Features, Writing

Warning – You are about to enter The Cliché Zone

Enough of the serious stuff – it’s silly season.  The Literary Sofa is usually all about good fiction and good writing – you’ve heard about my Best Books of 2012, you’ve seen my Fiction Hot Picks for 2013, but my final blogpost of the year is dedicated to a subject which doesn’t normally get a look-in here – the literary cliché.

Cheesy?  You bet.
Cheesy? You bet.

Let’s get straight to the heart of the blatantly obvious.  No writer, unless actually aiming to induce pained groans and shaking of heads, starts a story like this, do they?

It was a dark and stormy night….

Nor, we have to hope, would they end it like this:

It was all a dream.

What not to do with beginnings and endings, so far, so (not very) good.  Unfortunately the bit that comes in between can be tricky too.  Now as any savvy blogger knows, consulting your friends on Twitter is a cheap way to spice up a post.  If you’re lucky they will say witty and profound things so you don’t have to.   One of my correspondents is a Parisian and longstanding Londoner who nearly prevented this post seeing the light of day, saying the British are obsessed with cliché and that a post on the subject was itself a wilful act of clichéism (think I just invented that).  Suddenly I was seized with such doubt and insecurity, anyone would think I was a neurotic writer paralysed by fear of my own mediocrity.  I was no longer even sure I understood the meaning of…

…the word CLICHE

I looked it up.  Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought

It is the past participle of the French verb to STEREOTYPE, a printing term dating back to the mid 19th century, but now meaning:

a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing

There’s so much overlap between the concepts of CLICHE, STEREOTYPE and HACKNEYED THEME that it’s difficult to consider them in isolation, so I’m not going to try that hard.

Wake up and smell the coffee
Wake up and smell the coffee

I’ve been thinking about this so much over the last few days, I’m wondering if our French friend is right.  Maybe we are obsessed with clichés.  They’re everywhere, not just in written form but in images and in speech.  Ever find yourself saying, ‘It’s such a cliché but….’  and then you come out with it anyway?  Entire ideas and emotions have been hijacked: you can’t mention any kind of journey not involving a physical travel reservation without risking ridicule; you can’t talk about your dreams coming true even if they do for fear of sounding like you’re on X Factor.  As I’m about to demonstrate, you can’t discuss clichés themselves without them multiplying, so I write this in the certain knowledge that this piece and everything within it is one gigantic…

.[existential scream]

What seems to be the problem?

The perverse thing about clichés and stereotypes is that they contain elements of truth; what makes them recognisable is what causes them to become widespread which eventually renders them so horribly trite and unoriginal. However, in fiction, universally relatable themes and situations are rightly considered extremely important – so how do writers succeed in delivering one without the other?  Martin Amis said in 2001 (well before penning Lionel Asbo: State of England) ‘All writing is a campaign against cliché.’

Sometimes, it’s a losing battle.  Here’s my personal low-down on 3 types of literary cliché in ascending order of heinousness.  You’re entitled to your own opinion.  (Generous of me.) Spill it!

Hackneyed Storylines – There’s nothing new under the sun

We’re told ‘There are only 7 stories.’  I don’t know what they’re supposed to be but so what if it’s true?  Certain storylines, often based on the classics, hold an enduring fascination for readers.

Take the class divide; now there’s a British obsession the rest of the world seems to share.  It’s spawned several well-worn variants:  the lady dissatisfied with her titled husband or indifferent to her aristocratic suitors but who can’t keep her hands off the servants; the interloper who infiltrates a social circle and causes havoc – clichés, yes, and yet they can still work, and even be considered ‘literary’ if they’re well written.  Several of the (recommended) titles I reviewed this year follow this pattern – one of them, The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood is shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Award 2012.  In a different Twitter conversation last week, someone expressed surprise that The Art of Fielding was one of my favourite books of 2012.  It’s true, it does have some cheesy themes – the American dream, the underdog, the whole sport/male bonding thing – but it was a good story and that didn’t spoil it for me.

If something’s been done a gazillion times, it has to be done differently or better to stand a chance and sometimes even that’s not enough. Some run a mile from books about professors seducing their students or  divorced women reinventing themselves.  I find novels about school or college reunions where the people haven’t seen each other for decades boring and samey.

Stereotypes – Have we met before?

Given that there is a relatively limited range of human emotions and situations in which characters can find themselves (for example: love triangle, sibling rivalry, professional betrayal), why  does it not feel as if there are only seven stories?  Many readers judge a novel on whether they engaged with, and therefore cared about, the characters and whether they seem like real people.  This is why character stereotypes are potentially more of a problem than a familiar plotline.  How do you hope to be seen as a person?  Are you a balding suburban middle-aged lawyer or a warm, sensitive individual with an interesting background?  Someone who knows you will know the difference, and that’s what good writers achieve.  In real life, people are complicated and unpredictable (I wrote about this in A Real Character) so if a character is presented as a two-a-penny lonely alcoholic detective, frustrated stay-at-home mother or surly badass teenager with all the traits we’ve come to expect, they lack dimension.  Conversely, turning stereotypes upside-down can be done to great effect.

You CAN judge a book by its cliches
You can judge a book by its cliches

Writing Style – Same old same old

Not surprisingly, clichéd writing is often seen in  combination with an over-used storyline and stereotypical characters.  This spells D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.  Well to me it does, and if that makes me a snob, then tough.  The truth hurts.  The key word from the dictionary definition here is overused.  Overfamiliar language – words, phrases, expressions –  spoken or written can have two effects:  it can become invisible and fail to make any impact at all (= bland and boring) or it can be grating and irritating (= unreadable).  Sometimes it can be hard to recognise you’re doing it.  When editing my novel, I deleted about 1000 instances of the word ‘actually’, which I use far too much in speech – I also use the pointless ‘for some reason’ (don’t  know why).  Agents say they can tell from the first page or so if the author can in fact write – they’re not the only ones.

Writing that is really fresh and original portrays recognisable things in a different way to the usual.  Writers are constantly being told: ‘write the book only you can write’.  Use your own (or your character’s ) voice and it won’t sound exactly like anyone else’s to the reader.  I heard somewhere that if you suspect something’s a cliché, it almost certainly is.  I know, bad news for mirror-like lakes, puppy-dog eyes, corkscrew curls and blood-red sunsets, but that’s just the way it is.  Same goes for evoking place and time:  Romantic Paris in spring, swirly 1970s carpet and Wikipedia’d 1980s (including any reference, however oblique, to the song Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads, brilliant as it is.  We get it that it’s not your beautiful wife.)

So, there you have it.  Same as it ever was.

Thanks to Anne Oatley, Oscar de Muriel, Mike Clarke, Liam Bishop, Jean-Christophe Lanoe, Helen MacKinven and Carol Lovekin for kick-starting my rambling thought processes.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all my blog readers.

Soon I’m heading south for two weeks of summer in South Africa.  Back 7 January, when I’ll be welcoming Emma Chapman, author of How To Be A Good Wife as the Literary Sofa’s first guest of 2013.  It’s one of my Hot Picks and tipped to be a big success.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


15 thoughts on “Warning – You are about to enter The Cliché Zone

  1. Really enjoyed this. 1,000 cases of actually!! That’s a lot! Have a lovely Christmas and New Year.

    Posted by gabrielablandy | December 18, 2012, 14:57
    • Glad you liked it Gabriela! Well, 1000 is a bit of an exaggeration (probably) but it really was a lot of actuallys…. Have you seen my news re the Asham (if you didn’t guess weeks ago!) Very exciting, even if my name is misspelled.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 18, 2012, 18:33
  2. How funny. I remember one Creative Writing class at uni when we studied clichés for a bit, and they also asked to start recognising our own personal clichés. So, like your own overused ‘actually’ I am a terrible over-user of ‘pretty’ (as in ‘pretty late’ or ‘pretty confident.’)

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | December 18, 2012, 15:09
    • It’s a fun subject! I’ve been paranoid about cliched phrases since I started writing but the individual words are much harder to rein in. Interesting that we writers all seem aware of what ours are. When I write a blogpost I usually have to delete several x ‘huge’!!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 18, 2012, 18:36
  3. I have a spreadsheet that lists about 50 often redundant words that creep into first drafts of my writing – like quite, well, rather, however, slightly, almost and so on.

    I then go through the draft and scrutinise every one – Word 2010 is good at highlighting them – and chop most of them out and whittle down the word count. Trouble is I invariably think of some new sentences or dialogue to replace them with.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | December 18, 2012, 15:10
  4. Great post to end the year with and a subject I’m very interested in. I’ve even got a book, ‘Cliches and How to Avoid Them’, where words and phrases are rated on a scale of mildly irritating to completely unacceptable. Just as you say, if I feel the need to check the book, then I usually know that I should think of an alternative.

    I hope you and your family have a lovely festive holiday and look forward to 2013’s blog posts. x

    Posted by helenmackinven | December 18, 2012, 16:36
    • Hi Helen
      I’m happy this post is going down well – it was supposed to just be a silly one but I got a lot out of thinking about it in the end. Your book of cliches sounds like a laugh – at least I no longer work in the City having to endure talk of ‘paradigm shifts’ and ‘level playing fields’… Thanks for your support of the Literary Sofa and Merry Christmas in your new home.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 18, 2012, 18:40
  5. What an interesting post! One of the huge difficulties I find with characters is trying to make them recognisable (in terms of wanting the reader to identify or at least empathise with them) without making them characters we feel we’ve met many times before. It’s tough! My personal word cliches are very similar to Mike’s: slightly, quite, rather and almost. I must try to be more definite!. I’m quite fond of actually and really, too. Oh dear…

    Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | December 18, 2012, 17:51
    • Thanks Susan – everyone who’s commented so far is a writer – maybe it does us good to own up to our own transgressions into cliche territory. You’re right, all the words you want to avoid have a ‘watering down’ effect – avoiding all these pitfalls is a minefield (sorry, I’ll stop now).

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 18, 2012, 18:43
  6. The Art of Fielding is arguably guilty of all 3 of your symptoms of clichitis, when he ‘cradles the ball like a baby’ horribly sticks in my mind

    Posted by curbyoursubisms | December 18, 2012, 22:24
    • You’re right, I can’t argue with that, especially when you’ve given that cringemakingly twee quote. Maybe this is a lapse of taste on my part – it’s bound to happen sometimes. It may have got off lightly because I’m so interested in America – and also because I enjoyed it so much more than The Marriage Plot (not technically a campus novel but with some elements) which I found disappointing and pretentious. (also reviewed here).

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 19, 2012, 10:51
  7. Ah, great post. I find when I’m editing that my current unconsciously favourite word gets in there multiple times. Sometimes it’s a weird one you wonder how I managed to use it so many times without noticing until the edit. I go in phases, so I never know which word is going to ambush me next!

    Posted by isabelrogers | December 19, 2012, 12:05
  8. Three months late, just to say I love playing about in your blog, Isabel. I think the modifiers – pointless as they are – such as just, quite – are hardest to eradicate, but I’m really not sure about the clichéd storylines. not quite sure what it would be, perhaps in the area of class, but could one person’s big yawn be another’s fresh idea?

    Posted by Annecdotist | March 15, 2013, 10:13
    • Thanks Anne, always lovely to hear people enjoy the blog. I’ve had comments on year-old posts before! Re your last point, I suppose it depends how much someone reads and what they usually read. I can’t imagine many people thinking the examples I gave were fresh ideas, but it’s possible!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 16, 2013, 11:25

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