On Cliche

A private detective wakes up with a hangover on the first page of a detective novel. No, don’t write that. That’s a cliche. A woman is looking out the window deep in thought as she touches her hair. Nope. Been done a thousand times. The main character is told by a wise mentor with magical powers that he has an important destiny. Haven’t we seen enough of that already?

If you look through the internet on advice on writing, it will not be long before you come across a list of cliches to avoid, followed by more cliches to avoid, and more cliches to avoid. Read in your genre, they advise, because you may think your story is original, but your readers who love vampire stories have been reading twenty vampire books a year and they have seen it all. And before long, you come to feel that not only is your story unoriginal, but your prose is just a string of cliches.

We have all heard it before that there are only seven basic story plots and 46 archetypal characters. Similarities between works of fiction is unavoidable. And of course people will try to tell you that a cliche is not a cliche if you can sincerely project its universal implications.

Writer and editor Lee Diogeneia, whom I met via Facebook, recently gave me this sage bit of wisdom. In the decades preceding and following the publication of Harry Potter, tons of books about magical boys in search of their destiny have been published. It has often been pointed out that many of these books trace the same bildungsroman plot and the same magical child formula. They all feature the same fantasy trope. And yet only one of them became Harry Potter. It’s all been done before. Every story ever written is derivative of something that came before it. The only real variable is the author.

So, in spite of all those internet educators telling us to avoid cliche and common tropes, my only option is to write my best trope and infuse it with my best cliche. There are editors and editors out there, just as there are critics and critics. Some will nitpick over your every choice of words and every placement of a sentence. Some will be vague and inspirational. Saul Bellow’s editor once reportedly opined “This could be better.” Finding the right editor, it is said, is like finding the right spouse. No single editor can be a perfect match for everybody. But a piece of wisdom like Lee’s gives you hope that there might be a compatible editor out there after all.

The bottom line is, we are all writing tropes and we are all writing cliches. An avid reader will always find other works that did the same things before. The best you can do is to write your own version of the same old story in your very own way.


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