An essay on avoiding overused literary elements
|My brothers and sisters, I say unto you we are all sinners at the alter of the pen and paper. Not one among us has written a piece worthy of the divine. So i come before you a humble man. I wish to highlight, not my faults, not your faults, but our faults. I describe the heavens looking up from below the same as you.
The subject I want to address is not one of grammar. It isn't theme or story structure. It isn't character depth or development.
It is the cliche.
A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
Now that original thought bit is important, but I'll get to it in a convoluted fashion as is my custom.
One could argue that cliches exist for a reason on the basis of "Stereotypes exist for a reason". The irony, of course, being "Stereotypes exists for a reason" is itself cliche.
So what's wrong with using cliched phrases, concepts or characters? Why are readers so turned off by this practice?
Because if the cliche exists in your mind as a writer, it exists in the reader's mind as a reader. Telling someone a joke they've heard before won't draw a laugh. In effect the writer is wasting the reader's time, because they knew the story element before ever having read the piece.
Whether it is a poem or prose, cliche can dampen a reader's interest faster than any grammatical, technical or thematic flaw. Novelty probably won't influence the overall impression a reader takes away from a piece, but it will at least get them from beginning to end. Novelty is the 'who done it' quality, which forces us to finish even the worst of mystery novels.
In no way do I mean to suggest that novelty for novelty's sake is an appropriate approach to the writing process. The nuts and bolts of a story remain the same, regardless of how you arrange the components. A writer's goal should always be to convey the set of events, which compose the story. Novelty is only a means of doing so in a more interesting fashion.
Why do we use cliche?
I can't speak for every writer, but I will anyway. There are two reasons a writer relies on cliche.
1. The writer is lazy
2. The writer lacks confidence
Cliches are usually well written, or they probably wouldn't have become so universal. When a writer is attempting to describe something or insert something for which a cliche exists, the temptation is too great. The easy road is to rely on the cliche, rather than digging for a novel way of approaching the problem. Cliches are clean and concise, and most importantly the work was done for you. All you have to do is type it out.
The problem is this isn't you writing. This is a process of transcription rather than creation. It is the lazy way of approaching a problem.
This could really be a separate essay all together. I used to hear a phrase thrown around writing circles 'Trust your own Voice'. While on the surface this seems like good advice, it is actually wrought with problems for new writers. Like a cheating partner, your own voice will betray you many times. It will reach the paper, and provide you with nothing but disappointment.
Cliche is a voice you can trust. It is as reliable as a labrador, and will never fail to bring your slippers in the morning. Cliche is the partner you can bring home to mom and dad. Cliche won't leave you in tears again and again. It is easy to understand why a writer's confidence in his or her own voice wanes. That cheating bastard broke your heart. How can you ever trust them again?
Well, I might not have anything as good as 'Trust your own Voice', but I'd offer this instead, It's your voice, and you're stuck with it. You are just going to have to learn to have your heart broken sometimes. When the words are good, the elation is greater than anything cliche can offer. When they're bad, you'll feel like quitting. You're just going to have to ride out your abusive relationship with your voice.
So how do we quit?
Cliche is a habit, and habits are tough to break. Often the only way to break a habit is to replace it with another. As a writer you need to feel the words coming out. You should feel them inside. Whenever you're about to use a cliche, the feeling will change. It will come from a different place.
When you get that feeling, it is time for some self examination. What you're about to write is going to violate the greatest cliche of writing advice. "Write what you know." The cliche you're about to spit out is in fact something you don't know. Because you don't know it, you're just going to borrow it from somewhere else.
Stop. Don't do it. You'll feel dirty afterwards.
When you don't know something, learn it. Two crucial parts of the writing process are research and observation. If you are having trouble finding your own voice on anything you're writing, go out in the world and find it. If for some reason one of my characters must be a cobbler, I'm in trouble. I don't know a damn thing about the job of a cobbler. So before i can ever write this character, I must find out what a cobbler does. Are his hands likely to be rough or smooth?
You as a writer must ask these questions of yourself constantly. You can't rely on a cliche. You have to know it for yourself.
So why should I care?
Remember that original thought thing I mentioned earlier. Well, that is the real drug of writing. When you truly create an original work and a reader says they liked a certain part, that is all for you. Even if they hated the piece, you'll know the one thing they liked came from you. That was your voice. That was your research. That was your work.
There is no greater pleasure than passing on an original thought to another person.