Clichés are slippery little buggers. They creep into our writing even when we sleep with one eye open and a gun under our pillow. Nasty critters indeed. I’d like to first look at a couple of definitions, then I’d like to examine three topics I consider cliché in modern novels: sex, profanity, and writing about writing novels.
If you’ve heard an expression a million times, chances are it’s a cliche.
Cliche, also spelled cliché, is a 19th century borrowed word from the French which refers to a saying or expression that has been so overused that it has become boring and unoriginal. Think about the expressions “easy as pie,” or “don’t play with fire,” or “beauty is skin deep.” These are all cliches. A plot or action sequence in a film or novel can also be called a cliche if it has become dull and predictable through overuse.
I’m not going to reference any books or authors directly. Some of my favorite books are guilty of my proposed sins, and I don’t want to turn people away.
How many times have we read a book that we’ve really gotten into, the tension has built, we’re wondering what’s going to happen next, then suddenly the platonic male-female partners end up in bed? Too often this is how the subtext plays out.
“Oh my goodness Jenny, how are we going to solve this case?”
“I really don’t know. It’s getting very dangerous; we could be killed at the next plot twist.”
“Do you want a blowjob?”
The sex is gratuitous, casual, unemotional, and in no way ties into the tension of the story. This stuff doesn’t happen in real life. In real life there is typically a lot of electric activity going on; there’s internal thoughts of I want to, does he or she want to, will we, can we, and lots of social dancing around the issue, drunken singles bars excepted – a cliché. People simply don’t walk down the street and decide to have sex without social foreplay. Authors use the sex scene as filler. It seems to be an expected scene in every mass marketed book today. To me it’s lazy writing, lazy editing, and greedy publishing: it’s cliché.
Profanity also falls into this category of clichéd writing. It’s more subtle than gratuitous sex, but it’s there. We might have our hero who’s out solving a case, meets his contact for dinner and clues, and wham, out of nowhere, we get slammed with the F-word and more. No warnings, no hints. We thought he was a good guy, and now he talks like a street thug. And before we get too wound up, a wand waves, and he’s back to Mr. Clean mode again. It didn’t really create tension, it merely presented tense language. It was a trite magic show. To me it’s lazy writing, lazy editing, and greedy publishing: it’s cliché.
Writing about people writing about novels is a subtle cliché that gets me. I can rattle off some big name authors who have done it. I have done it. It’s easy to understand why too: writing novels is hard. My Jesus it’s hard, she said. Nobody who’s not writing a novel cares about characters who write novels. Only people like me who struggle through the process have any inclination of the difficulty, and it bugs the hell out of me that so many novelists can’t figure out nobody out there in novel reading land really cares how hard it is to write one. A good writer will take those passages and find some other vocation or hobby to write about such as chess, auto mechanics, or BBQ competitions. Get off your butts and research something new for fuck’s sake. To me it’s lazy writing, lazy editing, and greedy publishing: it’s cliché.
Should these three topics be excluded from our novels? Hardly. What we need to do is make them fit. We need to incorporate them with effective narrative technique. We need to build tension around them; foreshadow them; create the expectation and desire within the reader. Or we need to make sure it builds on our readers’ empathy and understanding of character logically and consistently. If we have a novel in an urban setting, make everybody swear profusely. Make it part of the landscape.
In my current story I’m using the expectation of sex as a means to build the relationship. So far the deed hasn’t happened, but it may. If I follow Alfred Hitchcock’s advice, it probably won’t. I also use profanity to illustrate the character’s tension. I built the expectation of a tea totaller, and when she does let loose, it’s timed with frustration and great tension. Hopefully the reader knows something major happened because the value barrier was torn down. And writing about writing novels is very hard for me to write, but I did it. I have a bucket list scene, and I threw it in as one of the minor character’s wishes. I can’t stand it though, so I plan on changing it.
I’ll end with questions. Does your sex, swearing, and novel writing writing work? Do they belong in your story? Is there appropriate buildup and tension? Do they add dimension to your character? Or are they simply lazy cliché?