Friday, February 4, 2011

Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

As writers, we are told so often to "Avoid Clichés," that the warning has pretty much become a cliché itself. Ah, the irony. In the last post in this series, we discussed several reasons to cut clichés, but it's good to note that there are moments when clichés can work.

I can think of two valid reasons for using them:

1. Establishing a Character.

People speak in clichés. It's a natural thing. While I don't think that means you should fill your characters' dialogue with clichés, you might use them to establish a type of character.
  • An old granny who has a proverb/idiom for every situation.
  • A ranch-workin' cowboy transplanted into a New York boarding school.
  • A Budda monk who lives in a monastery on top of Mount Kismet.
  • A parent arguing with a teenager who missed curfew.

You get the idea. The clichés they use build their character---show us who they are---place them in the world of your book. Still, the clichés should be used responsibly. Be sure they build up your character, rather than pull the character into the quagmire of overuse.

2. As Irony or Humor.

When you are using a cliché with the specific purpose of mocking it, I think it works. Clichés can be a lot of fun to play with. And because they are so well known (you know, from being overused), they make good joke bait.

For example, in Sorcerer's Apprentice (you have seen this movie, haven't you?), they use a plot cliché (namely Jedi mind-control) so the bad guy can get the information he needs. So just when I'm thinking, Huh. That reminds me an awful lot of Star Wars, his apprentice, the comedic sidekick, waves his hand and says in a mock-serious voice, "These are not the droids you are looking for." Okay, so maybe you have to see it, but it totally worked. Because they made a mockery of the cliché, I not only forgave it, but now think it's one of the best parts of the movie.

A word of caution: even though clichés may work in such situations, we need to be careful not to overdo it. What is funny once can fall flat the second or third time.

To end this series, I want to recognize that clearing out clichés that have crept into our writing is never easy. It takes work and effort. It often requires thinking outside the box. One of the best resources I know of to help your mind envision the possibilities is The Bookshelf Muse.

On the sidebar of their blog, you will find a wonderful assortment of Thesauruses: Setting Thesaurus; Emotion Thesaurus; Colors, Textures and Shape Thesaurus; and a Symbolism Thesaurus. Angela and Becca are nothing if not thorough, and they are constantly adding entries. I highly recommend you visit them for help with conquering clichés.

Again, I don't claim to be an expert. Hearing others' opinions and ideas is always good. So in the comments, please feel free to share other situations where you think using a cliché would work, other resources you know of to help conquer clichés, and any differing view you may have.

If you missed the first 3 parts, feel free to follow the links:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

13 comments:

Melissa said...

I totally love when people play with cliches and make them their own. I loved that part in Sorcerors Apprentice too!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I thought that part in SA was funny, too.

Love this post. And love love love the Bookshelf muse.

(wow, it must be feb. I'm in a loving mood.) ;)

Joanne said...

So many variables go into deciding to "cliche" or not. They do serve a purpose, and I'd use one only if it really worked well in the passage, without drawing that editorial eye declaring it cliche. It would have to be a really subtle use, that passes almost without notice.

Happy Friday to you :)

Jen Daiker said...

I love cliches, only when done in their own creative way!!!!

I have to catch up for Part one and two!

PS I talk about you on my blog today - trust me, it's all good ;)

Margo Berendsen said...

Definitely a notable moment in that movie! That sidekick in high heels was my favorite part of the movie. Well, that and the lightning choregraphed scene!

I need to review your previous posts on cliches. They are evil little things that creep into your writing and are hard to catch!

Angela Ackerman said...

Aw, thanks so much for the shout out, Janet! This was a really great posts--cliche's are not always a bad thing, and sometimes the can be made to work, but 98% of the time, we really need to think outside the box!

What's crazy is how something unique can become a cliche so quickly because everyone falls in love with it and starts using it.

Have a great weekend!

Angela @ the Bookshelf Muse

Christopher said...

Sometimes they sound natural coming from certain characters. When it comes to using cliches I guess you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

WritingNut said...

I actually haven't seen SA, but it's sitting on my shelf!

I agree with you on how cliches can totally work when done creatively and uniquely :)

Kenda said...

Interesting take on the subject--I enjoyed this and need to go back to your other posts, too...!

Beth said...

I loved that part of the movie. In fact, I had just leaned across and said to my daughter, "This is just like Star Wars" when he came out with that line! It really worked!
Oh, and I love the Bookshelf Muse too.

Kittie Howard said...

Super post! cliches can work, but sparingly so. I just read a novel set in 15th century England with a very modern American cliche...my eyes popped!

Tracy said...

My favorite cliche devices when I'm reading (and I've seen two writers do it very well) is having that one character who tries to speak in cliches from time to time, but they always mess them up. It may be a cheap chuckle, but I fall for it every time.

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