Monday, June 02, 2008

The Use of Clichés

I was asked recently by a reader about the use of clichés. She used the example of the protagonist waking up in the morning and starting the day, looking in the mirror and criticizing her appearance—she had heard these were taboo. I personally have never heard of anything being taboo, but will say these sound like really boring openings to me, which is probably why some people think they’re taboo.

Nothing is taboo if done differently and in an interesting manner, but there are a lot of things I see on a regular basis that feel easy to me, like the author followed a formula. Dreams are one example of what I guess you would call a clichéd opening. I see so many books that open with a scary dream. They are meant to draw the reader in and hold our attention, until the protagonist wakes up, and goes to the mirror to criticize her appearance. Now, dreams can definitely be effective and I’ve represented more than one dream book, but if done in a different, non-clichéd way.

Your examples are not effective simply because they are boring. Imagine if you asked me about my day, or the typical day of an agent, and I told you something like this: “I woke up at 5:30 and laid in bed for ten minutes debating whether I was really going to make it to the gym. After finally dragging myself out of bed and hunting for my slippers, I wandered into the bathroom. I had to close my eyes to the bright light before I could get a good look at myself in the mirror. My sunken . . .” Snooze! However, if you asked me about my day and I said, “I got a call from Tim Jin and the editor of All About Me Books offering $15,000,000,00 for my memoir. I couldn’t believe it. . . .” Now you’re interested. I’m not sure if these are clichés or just recommended Don’ts.

The opening of any book should grab the readers’ attention and put us into the action of the story, but action doesn’t always have to be physical. What people mean when they want the book to start with action is they don’t want the boring opening of the day, they want to actually get to something that moves us forward into the next scene and gives us immediate insight into the characters or the plot.

I was asked if I could come up with a list of clichés and the only one that jumped out at me was the dream sequence above, but I bet there are a lot of things the readers are sick of seeing. So I open it up to you. What techniques do you feel have become cliché and what would you like not to see again?